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Ukraine war tests China’s friendship with Russia | International

“Solid as a rock.” “Unwavering”. “Unlimited”. “However bleak the situation.” Since the presidents of Russia, Vladimir Putin, and China, Xi Jinping, met in Beijing on February 4 and signed a joint statement that raised the relationship between their two countries to the highest level in seventy years, the second largest economy in the world He has thus described the friendship between the two governments, matched by their desire to forge a front against their common rival, the United States. The war in Ukraine represents the first litmus test for China’s commitment to this friendship.

The West has increased pressure on Beijing this week. To the calls of the good cops – European countries and Asian partners such as Singapore – to use its influence with Moscow in a mediating role, have been joined by accusations from Washington, the bad cop that he suspects that Beijing is willing to provide economic and military aid to Russia. A complaint that the president of the United States, Joe Biden, has repeated in his telematic meeting with Xi this Friday, where according to the White House he has reiterated “the implications and consequences” of China “materially supporting Russia while launching brutal attacks against cities and Ukrainian civilians. It has not specified what kind of consequences, or if they could include sanctions against Beijing in addition to those already imposed against Russia.

Beijing has strongly denied that it is considering helping Moscow, something that would raise the conflict to even more dangerous levels than it is now. Divulging that idea is “disinformation”, the Foreign Ministry has assured him. In his reply to Biden, Xi portrayed his country as a peace-loving power by stressing that “the Ukrainian crisis is not something we like to see” and that “conflict and confrontation do not suit anyone ”.

From the beginning, China has adopted what it defines as a “benevolent neutrality”, a position that is perceived in the West as an ambiguity leaning towards Russia. She sends signals to each other with the apparent intention of avoiding being dragged into the conflict or serious consequences for her economy at times of weaker growth. It avoids calling the Russian attack an “invasion”, has declared itself willing to mediate in collaboration with the international community and assures that it plays a “positive role” for peace between kyiv and Moscow. And, at least for now, he respects international sanctions, despite Western fears that he could help Russia get around them.

China’s position “is not so much pro-Russian as it is anti-US,” says Alexander Gabuev, an analyst of Sino-Russian relations at the Carnegie Center in Moscow. Beijing always reads this war through the prism of its rivalry with the United States – the great geopolitical axis of the 21st century – and “puts its interests before absolutely anything else,” he explains.

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Therefore, this expert points out, “China is diversifying its bets.” On the one hand, her friendship with Russia is of “paramount importance”. Putin and Xi share a vision of human rights, the desire for a new global order that guarantees them a leading role, and the rejection of the US and its alliances. Their economies, interests, and areas of influence are almost perfectly complementary. But Beijing also wants to protect its relationship with Europe, a more important trading partner than Moscow and one that it does not want to completely align with Washington’s positions. Nor does he want to risk that excessive proximity to his strategic partner could bring him secondary Western sanctions. His idea, explains Gabuev, is “to find a way not to offend Russia and, at the same time, present himself as a benevolent power.”

So far, while fending off calls for a change of stance, he continues his careful diplomatic balance while waiting to see how the invasion unfolds. A war constitutes “an opportunity” for China, Wolfgang Munchau, director of the think tank Eurointelligence. Among the benefits that Beijing perceives is the opening of a new geopolitical front for the United States that can distract it from its rivalry with China in the Pacific. “You cannot engage in active China policy when your leaders have to spend so much time on Europe, Russia, and Ukraine. Without having to do anything, because Putin has already done it for her, Beijing has gained time”, says Gabuev.

A vision shared by circles of intelligentsia China. “A geopolitical friction in Europe in the wake of the war in Ukraine will slow the shift of US attention from Europe to the Indo-Pacific. This means that as long as we do not make serious strategic mistakes, not only will China’s modernization process not be interrupted, but China will have a greater capacity and play a greater role in building a new international order,” the academic wrote. Zheng Yongianof the Chinese University of Hong Kong (Shenzhen), at the beginning of the war.

Growing influence in Russia and risks

The invasion “is a good tool for China to examine the reactions of the West, without being involved,” says Justyna Szczudlik of the Polish Institute of International Studies. Although the speed, breadth and consensus of the sanctions that democracies have imposed on Moscow surprised Beijing, “one of the big questions for her is how long the West will stick together,” she adds.

The decision to play a more active role as mediator could come later, once the outcome of the war is clear. So he could try to play a role in the reconstruction of Ukraine, for example. Or, according to Szczudlik, in case the conflict goes awry for Putin, “help the regime survive”, since a Russia in the democratic orbit would be an absolute taboo for China.

It could also opt for a greater involvement – experts point out – if the fragile Chinese economic situation deteriorates dangerously, in a year in which Xi is preparing to renew his mandate and the Communist Party does not want any shock. The real estate and technology sectors are already having problems, and consumption has not finished taking flight after the pandemic. A new wave of covid has added to the uncertainty. The growth target for this year is 5.5%, the lowest in 30 years. And now the sanctions for the war may affect its exports, the mainstay of its growth after the first wave of the pandemic.

Beijing runs another risk in this war: that its image, already damaged as a result of the pandemic, will be further discredited in the West, and that the West, which Xi considers in decline, will emerge stronger from the conflict if Russia weakens.

Against this background, some voices have emerged advocating a change of position. Although it is impossible to know to what extent they are representative, since censorship blocks opinions that differ from official theses.

“In order to demonstrate China’s role as a responsible power, China must not only not align with Putin, but take concrete steps to prevent possible Putin adventures. China is the only country in the world with that capability, and it must take advantage of it,” he wrote. Hu Weivice president of a thinktank Chinese official, in an article published on the 5th by the Carter Center and partially censored in China since then. It is not clear that the opinion of Hu and other moderate voices has influence in the inner circles of power in Beijing. Chinese media continue to avoid showing the harsher consequences of the war, or referring to it as an invasion. They, and some official spokesmen, repeat unsubstantiated Russian accusations about the presence of US bio-laboratories in Ukraine.

In no case, whatever happens in or after the war, will Beijing turn its back on Russia, experts say. China hopes to achieve great advantages, both economically – on February 4 it signed new contracts for the purchase of Russian gas and oil for the next 25-30 years for 105,000 million euros – and in terms of influence in Moscow, in this alliance of which is the most important partner.

“China’s pressure capacity was already great, but now it is much greater and will be even greater towards the end of the year”, when Western sanctions are already having their full effect, Gabuev points out. Whether he wins or loses the war, the Russian economy will be greatly weakened. “Russia will have no choice but to sell China its most sensitive military technology, and offer its raw materials cheap, in yuan. China will be able to set the price. Before the war Moscow had other options, but those options have now disappeared,” he notes.

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