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The poisoned peacemaker: why China can’t abandon Putin

The history of Sino-Russian relations is long and complicated, but Xi Jinping is not ready to sacrifice his relationship with Russia's president.

By Katie Stallard

On 4 February 2022, with nearly 200,000 Russian troops massed on Ukraine’s borders and the US warning the world that an invasion was imminent, Vladimir Putin flew to Beijing. Officially he was there to attend the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics, but the more important business for the president was a meeting with China’s leader, Xi Jinping.

Despite the clear threat Putin’s forces posed to Ukraine (a key trading partner for China) and claims that the US shared intelligence with Beijing showing that he planned to attack, Xi endorsed the Russian president’s “legitimate security concerns” over Nato expansion and the two men issued an extraordinary 5,300-word joint statement. Declaring that their relationship was “superior” to an alliance, Xi and Putin set out their vision for a new global order no longer dominated by the West and announced that the partnership between their countries had “no limits”.

We may never know for certain whether Putin and Xi discussed the planned invasion directly during their meeting, but according to the New York Times senior Chinese officials asked their Russian counterparts not to attack Ukraine until after the end of the Olympics on 20 February. The following day, 21 February, Putin ordered his military to begin crossing into eastern Ukraine. On 24 February, 96 hours after the Olympic flame was extinguished, the Russian leader launched his full-scale assault.

By the time the war in Ukraine entered its sixth day, Beijing had attempted to position itself as a potential peacemaker, offering its services as a neutral arbiter between Kyiv and Moscow to help end the war. China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, told his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, in a call on 1 March that Beijing stood ready to support negotiations to reach a political settlement. According to the Chinese foreign ministry, Kuleba said he was willing to move forward with talks and “looked forward to China’s mediation efforts for the ceasefire”.

[See also: China attempts to play peacemaker on Ukraine]

Wang Huiyao, who has advised the Chinese government and who directs the Centre for China and Globalisation, a Beijing-based think tank, told me that China is uniquely positioned to play an intermediary role because it has well-established relations and strong trade links with both nations. “There could be six-party talks involving the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Ukraine,” said Wang, outlining the details of how he thought peace talks could unfold. “Or five-party talks between China, the US, the EU, Russia and Ukraine. If China is invited to the table, then it could certainly play a role.”

But China is not an impartial observer in this crisis – and not just because of the close personal relationship between Xi and Putin. By refusing to condemn the Russian leader’s aggression, or even to acknowledge that Russia has invaded Ukraine – instead calling on both countries to exercise restraint as though they were equally culpable – Beijing has already chosen a side.

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The history of Sino-Russian relations is long, complicated, and intermittently violent. First as empires, then as socialist comrades-in-arms, the two powers have frequently regarded each other with mutual hostility and distrust across their 4,000-kilometre border. “Four hundred years of Sino-Russian relations has taught the Chinese that… the Russian modus operandi is to maximise its own benefits,” writes Yun Sun, director of the China programme at the Stimson Centre in Washington DC. “For example, Russia carved out one million square kilometres of Chinese territory through its mediation of the Second Opium War [1856-60].”

After founding the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Mao Zedong agreed an alliance with the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, in February 1950. Soviet aid and advisers poured into Beijing and the two countries played a crucial role in the Korean War, which began later that year. Mao sent a huge number of troops to fight alongside North Korean leader Kim Il-sung against the US-led United Nations forces, while Stalin provided tanks, ammunition and aircraft.

But the Sino-Soviet alliance was never as monolithic as it appeared from the outside, and it fell apart altogether during the 1960s as those tensions rose to the surface. The two powers sparred over who was the rightful leader of the worldwide communist movement. In March 1969, they fought a short, undeclared border war, and by the end of that year Mao was so concerned about the danger of a Soviet nuclear attack that he fled the capital and ordered citizens to dig air raid shelters and stockpile supplies. The perceived Soviet threat was a major factor in Beijing’s decision to cultivate relations with the US, beginning with Richard Nixon’s famous visit to China in 1972.

[See also: Putin’s miscalculation in Ukraine could lead to his downfall]

While Putin and Xi are often depicted as the architects of the contemporary strategic partnership, the rapprochement began several decades earlier, after Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union in 1985 and signalled that he was interested in repairing ties. China’s then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping reciprocated, and the two sides began talks on demilitarising their shared border and settling their territorial disputes. In 2001, a decade after the collapse of the USSR, a young Vladimir Putin and the then Chinese leader Jiang Zemin signed the Treaty of Good Neighbourliness and Friendly Co-operation between their two countries, and the border issue was finally settled in 2008.

That neighbourly friendliness accelerated markedly under Putin and Xi. The Russian leader claims they first bonded when they shared a “shot of vodka and sliced some sausage” at an Asia-Pacific leaders summit in 2013. After Russia annexed Crimea the following year, Moscow embarked on a “pivot to the East” in an attempt to offset the impact of international sanctions. Bilateral trade between Russia and China has increased by more than 50 per cent since 2014, and the two leaders have gone to great lengths to demonstrate their personal chemistry and their shared world-view, holding frequent summits and even celebrating birthdays together.

Xi has called Putin his “best, most intimate friend”, while the Russian president has praised the “truly unprecedented nature” of their relationship. Recounting her private conversations with Chinese scholars, Yun Sun of the Stimson Centre concluded Xi had a “strong admiration of Putin as a strongman leader and a deep desire to be seen as Putin’s peer”. The Russian president is nicknamed “the Great Emperor” in Chinese popular culture, she writes, and seen as a leader who is “intelligent, decisive, manipulative and powerful. This is a status that Xi deeply desires.”

Perhaps most important is their shared opposition to the United States, which both countries view as their greatest strategic threat. Wang Huiyao told me this was the biggest single factor that would determine China’s response to the crisis and its relationship with Moscow. “The US and Western countries present China as a major strategic rival, even larger than Russia,” he said. “China is more concerned about its own security, so how can you expect it to go hand in hand with US initiatives or sanctions?”

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Chinese officials have tried and so far failed to articulate a coherent diplomatic response. They have stressed the importance of territorial integrity and called for an end to the violence – urging “maximum restraint” in a video summit on 8 March – but at the same time they have refused to offer even the slightest criticism of Russia’s actions, attempting to shift the blame on to the US instead. On 24 February, even as live television footage showed Russian tanks and heavy artillery rolling into Ukraine, for instance, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying accused the US of “hyping up war” and “fanning the flames” by supplying weapons to Kyiv. “As the culprit, the person who started the fire should think about how to put it out as soon as possible,” she said.

When asked whether China should urge Russia to back down given the two countries’ close relationship, Hua brought up the history of US military action around the world instead. She focused in particular on the Nato bombing of Belgrade in 1999, when US aircraft mistakenly targeted the Chinese embassy and killed three Chinese citizens, saying, “Nato still owes the Chinese people a debt of blood.” Her words were turned into a hashtag by the party-run People’s Daily newspaper and became the most popular topic on Weibo, China’s microblogging site, with more than one billion views. More formally, on 26 February, China abstained from voting on a UN Security Council draft resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Chinese media outlets have similarly been careful to avoid criticising the Russian invasion. Instead, they have repeated some of the Kremlin’s claims, such as Putin’s insistence that he had no choice but to act, and false reports that large numbers of Ukrainian soldiers had surrendered, or that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, had fled Kyiv. Pro-Putin comments have surged on China’s heavily controlled social media platforms, with users of Weibo praising him as “Putin the great” and “the greatest strategist of this century”. While some of the most extreme pro-war comments have since been erased, anti-war posts have also been widely censored. An open letter condemning the invasion written by five historians from China’s top universities was deleted within hours of being posted online.

[See also: Nixon in China: the complicated legacy of the week that changed the world]

“The Chinese have made it clear that they think Russia has legitimate security concerns, they have blamed Nato’s expansion as the cause of the problem, they won’t even call it an invasion,” Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia programme at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, told me. “At the UN Security Council, they insisted that the words ‘invasion’ and ‘aggression’ be removed from the resolution, I was told, before they would even agree to abstain. These are obviously all positions siding with Russia, so I just don’t see how anybody can suggest that China is neutral.”

Yet for Beijing, it’s not quite as simple as Xi wanting to have Putin’s back. Beyond the senseless tragedy and the humanitarian catastrophe Russia’s actions have wrought  in Ukraine, they have already harmed China’s interests. Ukraine is part of the Belt and Road Initiative, Xi’s signature infrastructure and foreign policy project, and Zelensky had previously positioned his country as a potential “bridge to Europe” for Beijing. As recently as January, Xi and Zelensky exchanged congratulatory messages on 30 years of Sino-Ukrainian ties and vowed to strengthen their “fruitful” cooperation.

But more significantly for Beijing, Putin’s war has united the US and its allies to an extraordinary degree, galvanising cooperation, for example, between the US, the EU and Japan, which could also be used to push back against China. Nato, which declared China a security risk in 2021, has rediscovered its sense of purpose. European governments are recommitting to defence spending. The G7 nations are coordinating severe economic and financial sanctions. None of this serves the interests of the Chinese leadership nor their confidence that the West is in decline and disarray.

China also stands to lose by being seen as an enabler of Putin’s aggression if Beijing attempts to throw Russia an economic lifeline, or through Putin’s close personal relationship with Xi. Already, there are reports of Chinese citizens in Ukraine who say they have been harassed because of their country’s perceived support for Russia, and the Chinese netizens cheering on the Russian president at home. While Chinese diplomats have abstained from votes to condemn Russia at the UN and spoken out against sanctions, Beijing understands that Chinese banks and businesses would suffer more by being cut off from international markets and dollar- denominated transactions if they violate sanctions than they would gain from increased trade with Russia, particularly given the increasingly parlous state of its economy. Two state-owned banks have already reportedly limited financing for the purchase of Russian commodities, and it is likely that China will approach international sanctions now as it has done the measures that followed Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 – loudly criticise them in public, but quietly abide by them, for the most part, behind the scenes.

China’s relationship with Russia has always been more complicated than it appears. Less than a month after the two leaders declared their “no limits” partnership, it is clear that there are, in fact, limits to how much support Beijing will offer Moscow. Xi has no interest in fighting Putin’s wars, and he is unlikely to sacrifice the Chinese economy on the altar of the Russian president’s imperial ambitions.

But Glaser cautioned against expectations that Beijing would now abandon Moscow, condemn the invasion, and reinvent itself as a peacemaker. “Even though they are discomfited by what Russia is doing,” she said, “I doubt that China is going to make a clean break with Russia.” Much as China might wish to see peace in Ukraine, it prefers to have Russia on its side for what it views as the much more serious threat from the United States.

[See also: China backs Russia in calling for an end to Nato expansion]

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This article appears in the 09 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's War of Terror