Xi Jinping is facing one of the most important decisions of his nine years in power. Having declared at a meeting with Vladimir Putin on 4 February that there were “no limits” to the Sino-Russian relationship, the Chinese leader must now judge whether there are, in fact, some limits to his partnership with Moscow. Reports citing “US officials” allege that Russia has requested military and economic assistance from China since the war in Ukraine began. While China has dismissed the claims as “disinformation”, Xi must now consider how much he is prepared to risk to support the man he has called his “best, most intimate friend”.
Before Putin invaded Ukraine, the rationale for China to draw closer to Russia was obvious. As well as the men’s personal chemistry and Xi’s reported admiration for Putin’s strongman leadership style, the two countries share a mutual interest in their opposition to the United States. Viewed from Beijing, the US is implacably opposed to China’s rise and determined to view the country as a long-term strategic rival; China sees little discernible difference between the approaches of Joe Biden and Donald Trump. Given that outlook, the relationship with Russia made sense as a way to push back against the US, as well as providing China with a secure source of natural gas, coal, oil and wheat. It was what Chinese officials like to call a “win-win cooperation”.
Yet now China stands to lose considerably unless it distances itself from Russia’s assault on Ukraine. Chinese firms and financial institutions could be penalised if they attempt to violate Western sanctions against Russia. Beyond the potential economic hit, Beijing risks being seen as an accessory to Putin’s aggression and finding itself on the wrong side of a new global divide. This is not just the view of those in Western capitals who might have an interest in undermining the Sino-Russian relationship. The strongest, most cogent analysis of the situation in recent weeks has come from the Shanghai-based academic Hu Wei, who also serves as the vice-chairman of a policy research centre affiliated with the State Council, China’s government – hardly a dissident.
In a piece published on 12 March on a website run by the Carter Center, a US non-profit, Hu wrote that “hope of Russia’s victory is slim”. He warned that the conflict could lead to a significant shift in the global balance of power, with the West becoming more united and a new “Iron Curtain” descending not just from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea but also between the West and its rivals around the world. Setting out a nightmarish vision for Beijing, Hu argues that China will find itself cut off from Europe as well as militarily encircled by an overlapping set of Western alliances including Nato, the Quad and Aukus. He urges the Chinese government to distance itself from Moscow quickly. “China cannot be tied to Putin and needs to be cut off as soon as possible… China can only proceed by safeguarding its own best interests, choosing the lesser of two evils, and unloading the burden of Russia.”
Hu is not the only Chinese scholar to voice his concerns in recent weeks. Wang Huiyao, president of the Centre for China and Globalisation, a Beijing-based think tank, wrote in the New York Times on 13 March that it was not in China’s interests to rely on an “anti-Western alliance” with Putin. “For all the talk of ties with Moscow, it is worth remembering that China’s economic interests with Russia are dwarfed by those it shares with the West,” Wang warned. The longer the war in Ukraine lasts, both scholars predict, the more it will benefit Washington’s efforts to reinvigorate an alliance based on Western values.
These are well-reasoned arguments put forth by scholars who have previously advised the Chinese government and could hardly be seen as apologists for the West. But there is no evidence so far that Xi intends to take their advice. At a virtual summit with the leaders of France and Germany on 8 March, he declined to attribute even the slightest trace of blame to Putin, urging both Russia and Ukraine to show restraint while refusing to acknowledge that one has invaded the other. His foreign minister, Wang Yi, announced on 7 March that the country’s relationship with Russia was “rock-solid”, while Chinese diplomats and state-run media have continued to amplify Russian conspiracy theories and repeat false claims that the US is funding biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine.
These debates are not taking place, in public at least, in China itself. A post about Hu’s analysis was censored on the popular Chinese social media platform WeChat. Wang’s piece was published in the New York Times, which is blocked in China. The biggest barrier to voicing these concerns in Chinese newspapers, and the most crucial argument against the notion that Xi will abandon Putin, is how closely the two men are linked personally. In a critical year for the Chinese leader, when he hopes to secure another five-year term in power, walking away from the vaunted “no limits” relationship with Russia would be to admit that he had made a mistake – that perhaps his judgement was fallible after all. It is more likely that Xi will double down, while those around him continue to applaud his strategic acumen. Just as Putin has done in Russia, Xi has concentrated power in China in his own hands and made it clear that he expects obedience from his officials, not debate.
This article appears in the 16 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s War Goes Global