How Will Russia’s War in Ukraine Impact Sino-Russian Relations?
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How Will Russia’s War in Ukraine Impact Sino-Russian Relations?

After three decades of progressive strengthening, Sino-Russian relations are being put to the test after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Three experts assess how the ongoing conflict will impact the future of the bilateral relationship.

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Bonny Lin

Director, China Power Project and Senior Fellow, Asian Security, CSIS

In the near term, China is trying to maintain its current positions—including the overall direction of deepened China-Russia relations—and avoid making any new major changes to its relationship with Russia. Chinese analysts assess that conflict in Ukraine is introducing profound uncertainty and transformation of international dynamics. As Zhang Hong, Yao Lu, and Liu Jun explain, the conflict impacts not only Russia and the geopolitical landscape in Europe, but also how the United States and its allies and partners operate in the Indo-Pacific. It is hard to fully predict the larger conflict implications. Han Yichen notes that Russia will need a long period of time “to digest the consequences of Western sanctions.” Yao recommends that China “maintain its strategic sobriety and determination at all times, and firmly pursue the path of peaceful development in the midst of turmoil and crisis.” Where possible, Beijing will try to preserve some appearance of neutrality in its actions regarding Ukraine.

However, several key factors undermine China’s ability to levelheadedly assess its next steps and may push China closer to Russia over the longer term. First, Beijing has defended Xi Jinping’s decision to deepen relations with Russia and, as a result, has censored criticism of Russia. This censorship is most evident in articles published after the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It creates an echo chamber within China that could further solidify China’s pro-Russia, anti-U.S., and anti-West views and positions.

The translated Chinese articles from late February and March 2022 are one-sided and blame other countries (the United States, NATO, and even Ukraine) for the conflict in Ukraine. Zhang, for example, mirror images Moscow’s experience with the West with that of Beijing. These parallels may raise key questions about China’s future: If Russia tried its best to work with the West but was excluded as an “other,” vilified as a threat, and was left with no choice but to use force, why would China not face the same situation? If China is destined to face a similar situation, shouldn’t China support Russia more?

Second, China is likely to view U.S. responses to Ukraine as provocative, further undermining already worsening U.S.-China relations. As Zhao Huasheng argued prior to the Ukraine conflict, there is already a new Cold War with the United States on one side and China and Russia on the other. Renewed U.S. efforts to reassure Taiwan and other U.S. allies and partners given the Russian invasion of Ukraine will aggravate Chinese fears that the United States is “hollowing out” its One China Policy and reinforce suspicions that the United States is set on containing China. Because there is little room to criticize Russia or China’s decision to stand by Russia, Beijing is likely to blame the United States and the West for any economic costs that China may suffer because of Western sanctions on Russia.

Finally, Moscow will actively court Beijing. Moscow turned east after its annexation of Crimea in 2014. The current Ukraine conflict will drive Putin closer to Xi. Russia is likely to be much more willing to offer China favorable political, economic, and military deals in exchange for Chinese support. Even if embracing some of these deals may come with geopolitical and economic costs, China may find some Russian offers too hard to pass up given its growing pro-Russian domestic mood and what Beijing assesses to be accelerated U.S. efforts against China. China could leverage “independent” or non-PRC state actors to accept some of these deals to create some distance between Beijing and Chinese entities supporting Russia.

Christopher Weidacher Hsiung

Researcher at the Asia and Middle East programme, Swedish Defence Research Agency (FOI)
(The views expressed here are his own)

The selected writings reflect a general consensus in China that the war in Ukraine is related to differences and deep-rooted tensions in Russian-Western relations dating back to the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, and perhaps even longer. Most blame is directed toward the West. The United States in particular is often singled out because it “never really treated Russia as an equal partner, always seeing it as an adversary, and ignoring Russia’s legitimate security concerns,” according to Yao Lu, professor and deputy director of the Northeast Asian Institute of Geopolitics and Geo-economics at Jilin University. This manifests most directly as NATO expansion toward Russian borders. Liu Jun, vice president of the China Society of International Relations and executive director of the Center for Russian Studies at East China Normal University, thus sees the ongoing Ukraine conflict as “the inevitable result of the long-term squeezing of Russia’s security space by the United States and NATO.”

However, Russian-Western divisions do not only reflect geopolitics but also political and ideological factors. As Zhao Hong, a researcher at the Institute of East European, Russian, and Central Asian Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, claims, “Differences between Russia and the West in terms of security concepts, values and worldview are escalating into a huge ‘conflict’ that is difficult to reconcile.” Of particular concern is the West’s promotion of democracy in Russia’s neighboring countries, including Ukraine, as he further elaborates. This is also perceived by Putin as a direct challenge to his own regime.

Such assessments constitute an important reminder that similar sentiments are also shared by China and relate to Beijing’s own threat perceptions regarding the United States and the West more broadly. As argued elsewhere, the combination of common perceived geopolitical and ideological threats emanating from the United States function as a powerful uniting element that explains the close relationship between the two states.  

The question now is whether such shared understanding and common grievances toward the West will prove enduring enough for China to stick to its valued strategic partnership with Russia as the Ukraine crisis further unfolds. The cost of tacitly supporting Moscow is growing more demanding every day, as the international community is increasingly isolating and putting heavy sanctions on Russia. Concerns over secondary sanctions, reputational costs, and a potential further hardening of the U.S. alliance and security-partnership network in the Indo-Pacific against China might change Beijing’s calculus. An adjustment wherein Beijing distances itself from Moscow to some extent to prevent a hard fallout with the West is thus possible.

That said, the Chinese leadership perceives that the West, especially the United States, is bent on containing the rise of China and ultimately seeks regime change—a strong sentiment shared by Moscow regarding its own dealings with Washington. As its relations with the United States are already at rock bottom, China sticking with Russia despite the predicament it has created for Beijing is also very plausible. More broadly, a sense of acute competition is reflected in recent Chinese writings. For instance, Zhao Huasheng, professor at the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University, sees the emergence of a new Cold War between the United States versus China and Russia. And, as Xi Jinping has proclaimed, the international environment is experiencing “great changes unseen in a century,” likely reflecting a belief that China is on the rise while the West in relative decline. Here, one assumes, is where Russia could play a continued role for China.

Sergey Radchenko

Wilson E. Schmidt Distinguished Professor, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is putting Sino-Russian relations to a serious test. Until now, this relationship has been positive. The two countries have strong, mutually beneficial economic ties and common security concerns, for example in relation to stability in Central Asia. Beijing and Moscow share a strategic outlook: both see the United States as an adversary and understand that strengthening Sino-Russian cooperation increases their maneuvering space while constraining Washington’s. But it would be wrong to see Sino-Russian relations as merely transactional or as a response to Western pressure. Beijing and Moscow have their own reasons for maintaining close and stable ties. Their historical experience includes a long period of mutual antagonism (which was skillfully exploited by a third power). Overcoming enmity and building trust took decades, and both sides understand that it would be folly to allow this relationship to deteriorate. In addition, China and Russia adhere to a common, anti-liberal ideological framework. Their joint statement of February 4, 2022, provides an interesting indication of the trajectory of the relationship, including a discussion of shared values to promote as an alternative to Western conceptions of democracy and human rights. Finally, given the centralization of decisionmaking in Beijing and Moscow, strong mutual respect and a high degree of trust between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have helped smooth corners in the relationship, facilitating ever closer ties.

Despite this closeness, the Sino-Russian relationship is still best described as an alignment rather than an alliance. Each country has indicated to the other that it expects support on its “core interests” while allowing their national interests to diverge in some areas. There is certainly no obligation to come to each other’s defense: here China and Russia regard one another as strategically autonomous players, quite capable of waging and winning great-power wars on their own. At least, this was the case before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Putin’s war has presented Beijing with a dilemma. If Russia had rapidly accomplished its strategic objectives in Ukraine, it is easy to see how China would have endorsed the fait accompli. True, Foreign Minister Wang Yi has announced his “five points” on Ukraine, which include respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, but Beijing would have surely pragmatically accepted Russia’s annexation of Ukraine, conveniently blaming it on Western hostility—i.e., NATO enlargement to the East. Thankfully, the narrative for such blame-shifting is already in place (see, in particular, articles by Han Xiangyang and Liu Jun).

However, Russia’s blitzkrieg offensive ran out of steam, partly due to inherent problems with Moscow’s military strategy but mostly in view of the Ukrainians’ better-than-expected resistance. This probably surprised Beijing much as it has surprised observers in the West and in Russia itself (see, for example, the article by Yao Lu, which repeatedly calls Ukraine a “failed state.”) The strength of Western sanctions—which brought Russia’s economy to the brink of collapse—was also an unexpected development from the Chinese standpoint. In any case, it is becoming increasingly apparent that Putin has committed a terrible blunder by starting this war. The question then becomes: what next?

Beijing clearly does not want Russia to lose, or at least lose badly. This would give the West a morale boost and strengthen Washington’s hand in dealing with China, particularly in relation to Taiwan. None of the Chinese commentaries broach this question, but there is little doubt that Beijing is drawing its lessons from Putin’s blunder and determining the consequences it might have for China’s own freedom to maneuver. On the other hand, escalation of this war is also fraught with negative consequences for regional and global stability. China is already coming under pressure from the Biden-Harris administration to desist from supporting Putin by extending him lethal aid. For all these reasons, Beijing’s preferred outcome would be to see a peaceful settlement to this crisis, and it has even indicated interest in mediating. It has not, as far as we can tell, put much pressure on Putin to bring the war to an end.

The consequences of this war for the Sino-Russian relationship cannot be understated. For one thing, Russia will grow ever more dependent on its southern neighbor, making the relationship more unequal. The war has already deepened Russia’s problems, particularly mounting economic obstacles—as Feng Yujun and Sun Zhuangzhi convincingly highlight in their pieces. It has missed opportunities to reform itself and is set to fall even further behind. Sun draws attention to Russia’s propensity to make up with the use of force what it fails to gain economically, but the atrocious war in Ukraine suggests that Moscow’s military capabilities have been seriously overestimated. China is thus stuck with a quasi-ally that has very few advantages and is rapidly declining into irrelevance, while still maintaining considerable ability to disrupt the international order through self-destructive acts of defiance.

But one thing is certain. As Yao Lu’s article points out, Russia’s war in Ukraine has resulted in the West diverting its attention from China, giving Beijing a rare opportunity to advance its own interests without too much interference by the United States. The key factor to watch for is whether China squanders this opportunity by unwisely propping up Russia’s sinking ship.

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