Following President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Moscow, we asked a selection of our Network members: what does this mean for the war in Ukraine? Is China set to increase support for Russia in its invasion, or is it acting as a restraining influence, especially on nuclear threats? And what does the Sino-Russian alliance mean for global politics more broadly? Read on to see contributions from Dr. Zachary Paikin and Agathe Demarais of the YGLN, our Policy and Research Director Oliver Meier and Senior Network members Stefano Stefanini and Tarja Cronberg.
“The war has thus given Beijing a unique opportunity to deepen Russia’s dependence on China, which in turn provides the foundations for China to focus exclusively on the strategic pressures emanating from the US.”
Researcher, Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels (CEPS)
While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine likely took Beijing by surprise and has complicated China’s strategic landscape, Chinese President Xi Jinping has nonetheless continued to invest in his country’s partnership with Moscow. This is because, at the macro level, China’s primary strategic challenge comes from the pressures imposed upon it by the United States. The irritants in Sino-American relations (e.g., Taiwan, trade and technology) exist in their own right and would not disappear if Xi were to throw Russian President Vladimir Putin under the bus.
The war has thus given Beijing a unique opportunity to deepen Russia’s dependence on China, which in turn provides the foundations for China to focus exclusively on the strategic pressures emanating from the US. There is also little reason for Beijing to invest significantly in a Russo-Ukrainian ceasefire proposal or peace process given that the belligerents are not prepared for one – nor is the West. As such, Beijing perhaps envisions a two-step strategy, each of which presents a strategic opportunity; consolidating its entente with Moscow, and then turning its attention to mediation once the situation becomes more amenable (relatively speaking) to negotiations.
Seemingly siding with Russia has come at the cost of China’s relationship with Europe. And Europe’s increasing dependence on the US will make it harder for Europeans to resist US pressure to fall in line with Washington’s China-related policy goals. But with Russia-West relations seemingly irreparably damaged, the notion of Russia serving as a bridge between East and West does not appear possible for a very long time. Therefore, after the phase of consolidation of the Russo-Chinese strategic partnership has passed, if China plays its cards right over the coming years it may be able to place itself at the centre of the EU-Russia-China triangle. China will be willing to play this game so long as it does not perceive its core interests to be under immediate threat by the US and its allies.
“…China and Russia’s advances in the Global South are worrying. One year after the invasion of Ukraine, an increasing number of governments are siding with Russia… This is happening on the back of intense Russian campaigns of disinformation (falsely) linking Western sanctions to food and energy insecurity in developing countries.”
Global forecasting director at the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU)
The economic relationship between Russia and China remains unbalanced: China is far more cautious than taking its declarations at face value would suggest. In 2022 Russia’s priority was to find alternative suppliers after it lost Western imports. However, China’s exports to Russia rose by only 12.8% last year – a performance on par with the rise in Chinese exports to other countries. China’s exports to Russia represented 2% of total exports – on par with Thailand, whose economy is four times smaller than Russia’s. In other words, Russia’s much-touted economic pivot towards China is not taking place as much as Moscow would like to claim.
Moreover, the Power of the Siberia 2 pipeline may well never come into operation. This is very significant, given this was the only potential tangible deliverable in terms of economic cooperation following Xi’s visit to Moscow (and it didn’t happen). China’s calculus appears to be that it doesn’t need this additional source of natural gas (the IEA believes that China may soon need to re-export surplus gas because domestic demand is not forthcoming). In addition, Beijing is careful not to become overdependent on Russia energy; Putin has clearly shown in recent months that Russia is far from a reliable supplier of gas.
However, China and Russia’s advances in the Global South are worrying. One year after the invasion of Ukraine, an increasing number of governments are siding with Russia (notwithstanding UN votes, but looking at other factors, such as economic co-operation). This is happening on the back of intense Russian campaigns of disinformation (falsely) linking Western sanctions to food and energy insecurity in developing countries. Such operations are fuelling resentment against Western countries, and so far nothing seems to be done (or doable?) to counter this trend.
[Agathe goes into further detail on these comments in a recent article for Foreign Policy.]
“Xi may have warned Putin in private not to use nuclear weapons to back up his invasion of Ukraine. But if Beijing is serious about wanting to play a more important role in strengthening the global nuclear order, such silent diplomacy on Russia’s open nuclear threats is not good enough.”
Policy and Research Director, The European Leadership Network
If Chinese President Xi is concerned about Russia using nuclear weapons in the context of its war against Ukraine, it did not show during his visit to Moscow. The Joint Communiqué did urge nuclear weapon states to “effectively reduce the risk of nuclear war”. But Beijing and Russia qualified their call for measures to reduce strategic risks by stating that such steps should be “organically integrated into overall efforts to ease tensions”. This seems very close to the Kremlin’s line that strategic stability talks cannot resume unless the West changes its position on Ukraine.
The joint statement lacks a reference to China’s previously articulated warning that “the threat or use of nuclear weapons should be opposed.” It is also at odds with Beijing’s support for the G20 statement agreed in November 2022 that nuclear threats are “inadmissible”.
Xi may have warned Putin in private not to use nuclear weapons to back up his invasion of Ukraine. But if Beijing is serious about wanting to play a more important role in strengthening the global nuclear order, such silent diplomacy on Russia’s open nuclear threats is not good enough.
Instinctively, one might thus want to slam China for being with Russia under one blanket on nuclear issues. But third countries, including Europeans, would be better advised to remind China of its promises to reduce the salience of nuclear weapons in international relations. This should include highlighting the differences in positions taken on nuclear threats ahead of the Moscow summit and the language contained in the joint communiqué.
Acknowledging previous positive developments in China’s nuclear diplomacy vis-à-vis Moscow, while pointing to the recent Chinese failure to speak up on Russian nuclear threats, could facilitate two developments. Such a more receptive approach could help shore up international pressure on China to further distance itself from Russia. Many countries of the Global South are alarmed by Russia’s attempts at nuclear blackmail. Taking China by its words on nuclear threats might also provide support to those in Beijing who view the increasingly close China-Russia partnership critically.
Such an approach of not letting Beijing off the nuclear hook must not ignore China’s nuclear build-up. Western countries should continue to criticize Beijing for striving to emulate the Russian and US nuclear postures by diversifying, modernizing and building up its nuclear forces. But the continued engagement of Beijing on those nuclear issues where its positions are ambivalent remains important in efforts to strengthen the nuclear non-proliferation regime and China’s role in it.
“To mediate credibly, Xi Jinping would have to go to both Moscow and Kyiv. Barring surprises, he does not seem to have any intention [to go to Kyiv].”
Former Permanent Representative to NATO, Former Diplomatic Advisor to the President of Italy
The relationship with China has become an umbilical cord for Russia. There is no doubt that today Vladimir Putin needs Xi Jinping. Xi’s visit to Moscow also signals the reverse: Xi needs to count on Vladimir. The renewed aggressive assertiveness that emerged from the XX Congress of the CCP, the manoeuvres around Taiwan, the growth of military spending have set in motion dynamics of containment of China in the Pacific. Beijing protested after the Aukus (USA-UK-Australia) summit in San Diego in which the American supply of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia was agreed – the submarines will arrive in 2040.
There will be more immediate and direct consequences from the rapprochement between Tokyo and Seoul. The decision to bury the wall of Korean resentment over the Japanese occupation, and of Tokyo’s non-apology for “comfort women” and other war crimes, has only one simple explanation: joint [Japan-South Korea] deterrence of China.
In any event, [Chinese] political interest in supporting Moscow seems to prevail over advocacy of the 12-point peace plan, not even mentioned in the Chinese announcement of the visit. To mediate credibly, Xi Jinping would have to go to both Moscow and Kyiv. Barring surprises, he does not seem to have any intention [to go to Kyiv].
[These comments were originally published in Italian by La Stampa.]
“Today, China has the maximum leverage to influence Russia. China could cancel its oil import from Russia having just negotiated a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran. If we want the war to end with Ukrainian territorial integrity in place, China´s peace efforts are most likely the best bet.”
Former Member of the European Parliament, Distinguished Associate Fellow at SIPRI and Member of the Executive Board of the European Leadership Network
The Chinese peace platform has not been met with enthusiasm in the US. President Biden commented on it by saying: “Putin is applauding it, so how could it be any good?” Secretary of State Anthony Blinken underlined that the visit of the Chinese leader implies that China does not hold Russia responsible for the war crimes that the Russian forces are committing in Ukraine. The platform is, on the one hand criticised for not being concrete enough, on the other hand it is seen as providing the Russians with the possibility to win time and to reorganise the war effort.
The first point in the Chinese proposal is support for sovereignty. It states that international law, the UN Charter and territorial integrity of all countries must be strictly observed. It underlines further that equal and uniform application of international law should be promoted, while double standards must be rejected. This can hardly be seen as a defence of the Russian illegal attack and occupation of Ukrainian territory. It can, of course, be claimed that the Chinese are lying. Nevertheless, China has a long history of defending sovereignty in the Security Council.
Today, China has the maximum leverage to influence Russia. China could cancel its oil import from Russia having just negotiated a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran. If we want the war to end with Ukrainian territorial integrity in place, China´s peace efforts are most likely the best bet. And at least worth a try. The Ukrainian president has not rejected the proposal but is interested in discussing it. This is a good sign.
The opinions articulated above represent the views of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or all of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.