Three weeks ago, the leaders of China and Russia declared that the friendship between their countries “has no limits” as they met in Beijing on the eve of the Winter Olympics. But that was before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a gambit that is testing just how far China is willing to go.
The nuclear-armed neighboring giants have grown closer in recent years, raising the specter of an alliance of authoritarian states that could challenge a U.S.-led democratic West in a new Cold War. Yet China has much to lose in such a scenario, and President Xi Jinping has spoken out against the “Cold War mentality” of those who portray his country’s rise as a threat.
The emergence of a China-Russia axis is far from a foregone conclusion. Trade with Europe and the United States is a major driver of China’s economic growth, even as its estrangement with the U.S. and its appetite for energy have led it to deepen ties with Russia.
“The ongoing conflict in Ukraine will reveal whether there is a deeper bond or whether the relationship is essentially transactional,” Anthony Saich, a China expert said in a Q&A posted on the website of Harvard University’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation.
He outlined three possible actions that would indicate “China has thrown its lot in with Russia.” These include Beijing using a veto, rather than an abstention, of any U.N. resolution to criticize Russia’s actions; recognition of a puppet regime in Ukraine put in place by Russia; and a refusal to call the attack an invasion even after civilian deaths are clearly confirmed.
China, along with India and the United Arab Emirates, already abstained from voting on a U.N. Security Council resolution Friday demanding Russia stop its attack on Ukraine. Russia vetoed it. China abstained again on another vote on Sunday, though it was a procedural one not open to veto.
“The two abstentions show that China has adopted a more prudent attitude than before amid the extremely broad criticism and protest of the world against Russia’s all-round attacks,” said Shi Yinhong, an international relations expert at Renmin University of China.
Li Fan, a Russian studies professor at Renmin, said that China and Russia have “a neighborly, friendly strategic partnership” but that China isn’t taking sides in the current crisis.
Russia’s move to put its nuclear forces on high alert Sunday, escalating the crisis, may make China more cautious.
China has said that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations must be respected — a stance that runs counter to an invasion — while also opposing sanctions on Russia and blaming the U.S. and NATO’s eastward expansion for being the root cause of the crisis.
For many of those imposing sanctions, China’s actions amount to “support for the invasion.”
In a series of calls with European counterparts last week, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said “the present situation is something we do not want to see.”
It is unclear whether Putin sought Xi’s support when he came to Beijing for the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics on Feb. 4.
A joint statement was issued after Xi and Putin met that declared “friendship between the two states has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.”
Without mentioning Ukraine, the Russo-Chinese statement clearly opposed NATO expansion and coalitions that “intensify geopolitical rivalry” — a likely reference to U.S. President Joe Biden’s efforts to strengthen ties with other democratic nations in the face of China’s rise.
The communique also declared the “new inter-state relations between Russia and China are superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era.”
Half a century ago, in the midst of the Cold War, it was China and the United States who found common cause against Russia.
At the time, China’s ties with the Soviet Union had soured, and its leaders were worried about a Soviet invasion. Fifty years later, the relationship among the three great powers has changed in hard-to-imagine ways. U.S.-China ties are on the rocks, and Beijing and Moscow are reaching out to each other instead.