Article: How has the war on Ukraine changed diplomacy?

China-Russia Relations

May. 6, 2022

by Babak Babali

Beijing finds itself in a tricky diplomatic situation with the ongoing war in Ukraine, as it tries to avoid a fall-out with the West while remaining on friendly terms with Moscow.

China and Russia may seem to have a great deal in common.

They are large and influential countries, both used to be communist states, and neither country is on excellent terms with Western democracies.

So it would make sense if Russia and China were close allies. The reality of the matter is not that simple, however.

Russia and China are neither close allies nor enemies. Of course, they have long-established diplomatic and economic ties, but their closeness is a matter of practicality and can—at times—waver.

Beijing’s support of the Russian invasion of Ukraine has been tangible enough to cause dismay in certain quarters such as the US State Department, but it probably falls short of what Moscow was expecting.

From the Kremlin’s point of view, although Beijing has echoed some of the Kremlin’s justifications for war in Ukraine, China has not openly backed up Russia’s adventure, nor has it offered Moscow much in the way of financial and military support.

This is simply because China cannot afford to fall out with the West in the way that Russia did in February, 2022. China’s USD17.5 trillion economy has much to lose and little to gain from unequivocal support of the Kremlin’s policies.

Beijing and the West: Not the best of friends, but it depends...

Chinese industrial and technology manufacturers form the backbone of the red giant’s economy, and contracts with western companies are what make them tick.

If you happen to own an American or South Korean brand of smartphone, a look at the back of your device will tell you where it was put together. Not in the US or South Korea, surely.

Much else that you see around yourself originating from brands based across the world, too, were manufactured in the same place as your smartphone.

Beijing does not want to risk its lucrative—albeit a touch shaky—business relations with the US and its allies, particularly now that the red giant’s outstanding foreign debt exceeds USD2.7 trillion, according to Bloomberg.
Nevertheless, China does not want to risk its long-standing economic and political ties with Russia, either. 

Beijing and Moscow: Longtime comrades, but not unconditional

Much has changed since the Cold War, when Moscow was the de facto leader of the Eastern Bloc and the entire socialist world.

With its rapid transformation into an economic powerhouse over the last two decades, China has completely eclipsed Russia in almost every way, ranging from GDP to influence over developing economies.

“The China-led ‘16+1’ initiative in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) is crafting a soft version of the old East European bloc, this time under Chinese rather than Russian tutelage,” observed Martin Hala in a 2018 scholarly article published in the Journal of Democracy.

China’s famous Belt and Road international investment initiative is of still higher importance in solidifying Beijing’s influence over some 70 developing nations, many of which used to be under Moscow’s sway during the Soviet era.

China is even working on economic projects on Russian soil. Chinese enterprises are active in many parts of Siberia, including around Lake Baikal, tapping into its huge freshwater reserves.

All this has caused some hard feelings among local Siberians, curbing China’s foreign direct investment in Russia since 2018.

Despite some misgivings, Moscow and Beijing still feel the need to keep their strategic alliance alive, at least for the sake of appearance, and possibly more.

Beijing, in particular, prefers to maintain its ties with Russia given the huge economic prospects, hence the political support and economic lifeline offered to Moscow after the annexation of Crimea.

Walking a fine line and an impossible choice

This time, however, things may get more intense given Russia’s large-scale and haphazard military adventure in Eastern Europe.

Beijing is already walking a very fine line, doing its best to maintain its diplomatic and business ties with both the West and Russia, but the time may come for Beijing to make a difficult decision.

Beijing has something to gain from each of these two sets of relations, and neither is free of downsides.

It is extremely difficult, however, to predict which ties will survive if, over the coming months, China is pressed to choose one or the other.

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