Aug 28, 2023

China, Russia, and the War in Ukraine

The Sino-Russian relationship has become a more intractable problem for the transatlantic alliance. The West should continue to concentrate its efforts on Beijing.

DOCUMENT DATE:  21 March, 2023  Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping arrive for Russia-China talks in an expanded format at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia March 21, 2023.
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Before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the Russia-China strategic partnership was becoming increasingly challenging for the United States and its allies. But since the war began, Chinese-Russian relations have presented more intractable problems for the transatlantic alliance. Chinese support for Russia has enabled the Kremlin to continue its aggression against Ukraine and has helped solidify the refusal of much of the Global South to condemn or sanction Moscow. It has complicated the West’s moves to isolate Russia and exclude it from the global economy. Conversely, if it so choses, Beijing could play a constructive role in mediating between the parties to end this war. But so far China’s vague “peace plan” has achieved nothing concrete, and it continues to emphasize the importance of its partnership with Russia.

Since the invasion, China has consistently blamed NATO and the West for provoking Russia into launching the attack and not taking Russia’s legitimate security interests into account, repeating verbatim Russian talking points. It has refrained from calling the conflict a war or saying that Russia invaded its neighbor. Russian President Vladmir Putin may very well not have told Chinese President Xi Jinping in advance in February 2022 that this would be a full-scale invasion, as opposed to a limited-sounding “Special Military Operation.” But once it started, China may have presumed, like many in the West, that the war would be over in a few days.

By now, the Chinese must be taken aback by the below-par performance of the Russian military and the brutality of the war, and they may well have lost some confidence in Putin’s judgment. But they cannot afford to have Russia lose, given the deepening tensions of great power competition. While China was silent during the 24-hour mutiny by Evgeny Prigozhin’s Wagner group back in June, it must question the dynamics of Kremlin politics and wonder how stable the situation really is.

A Key Partner

Russia remains a key partner for China in its determination to create a multipolar world order in which the United States and Europe no longer set the agenda or the rules. Russia’s vision of a post-West order is different from China’s. President Putin’s Russia promotes a disruptive and anarchic world order with no rules. But the nightmare scenario for China would be a post-Putin Russia led by a leader who would reassess Russia’s interests and decide that it was important to repair relations with the West and distance Moscow from Beijing. China’s determination to prevent Russia from losing the war and experiencing unpredictable regime change is a constant challenge for the US and its allies who are supporting Ukraine. It adds to the weight of the other issues that are straining the West’s relationship with China.

Despite the initial “no limits” label, there are indeed limits to this partnership. When Xi visited Moscow in March 2023 he praised the Russian-Chinese strategic partnership. But he did not meet Russia’s twin goals of signing an agreement to build the Power of Siberia II gas pipeline or supply lethal weapons to Russia. So far, Beijing has been careful not to violate Western sanctions against Russia for fear that it would trigger secondary sanctions on China.

During the summit, Russia commended China’s “objective and unbiased position” on Ukraine, including the peace proposal Beijing made in February. A separate statement detailed plans to expand bilateral investment and trade, including in national currencies, to develop new bilateral logistics channels, to expand energy cooperation, and to ensure both countries’ supply of “basic goods and mineral resources.”

Indeed, China’s exports to Russia grew by 67.2 percent in the first half of 2023. One reason that China has moved to the fore as the world’s leading auto exporter is because it has filled the void left by the withdrawal of Western automakers from Russia. Chinese trade with Russia has steadily increased since the war began, although it remains much more important for Russia than for China. Indeed, Russia is becoming a Chinese economic dependency, having lost its natural gas and other markets in Europe that were so important for Putin’s rise to power.

The two countries have also stepped up their military cooperation in the past 15 months. China, Russia, and Iran launched joint military exercises in March in the Gulf of Oman in the latest sign of Beijing's efforts to expand its influence in the Middle East. In June, the Chinese and Russian militaries had their sixth joint air strategic patrol in the airspace of the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea. Chinese and Russian aircraft entered the southern and eastern parts of the South Korean air defense identification zone. South Korea scrambled fighter jets after four Russian and four Chinese military aircraft entered its air defense zone. Japan responded in a similar way after two Russian and two Chinese bombers flew over the Sea of Japan to the East China Sea, where two other Chinese fighter planes joined. The joint exercises in the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea are seen as particularly provocative by the West’s Asian allies. China and Russia have also held joint naval exercises with South Africa.

Promoting the BRICS

Since the war began, China and Russia have also redoubled the promotion of the multilateral organizations they lead that exclude the West—BRICS and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). They see these groupings as important building blocks for their vision of a post-West multilateral global order. Indeed, six countries—Argentina, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudia Arabia, and the Unitd Arab Emirates—will join BRICS in 2024, as announced last week at this year’s BRICS summit in Johannisburg (which took place without Putin in attendance); 19 had applied for membership. Some of these future members and applicants have close ties to the United States, and it is unclear how joining BRICS would impact these ties.

China and Russia have also emerged as champions of the Global South. Russia has reiterated the claim that it is an “anti-imperialist” power and that the United States and Europe are the imperialists. Somehow, the Soviet Union’s colonial role in Eastern Europe and over non-Russian ethnic groups is overlooked. The majority of Global South countries do not view Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as part of the Kremlin’s imperialist project and many still view Russia as the successor to the USSR, which supported anti-colonial movements in the Third World. They believe that Russia has done nothing worse than what the United States has done over the past half century (Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan), and have refused to condemn or sanction Russia. India, a partner of the United States in the Quad (with Japan and Australia), has made it abundantly clear that Russia remains an important economic and strategic partner, even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi has warned Putin against making nuclear threats. India’s foreign Minister Subrahmanyan Jainshankar has called Russia “a time-tested and steady partner.”

European Leverage

All these developments have made it much more difficult for the West to maintain sanctions on Russia. Yet Europe does have some leverage. Chinese-American relations deteriorated under the Trump and Biden administrations and show few signs of improving. Indeed, the US has designated China as the number one threat to its security. It has also leaned on its European allies to distance themselves more from China, one of their principle economic partners.

China is still hoping to persuade the Europeans not to take a similar path of restrictions and decoupling to that of the United States. Hence the “peace plan,” and the belief in some European capitals that these Chinese attempts should be encouraged. Of course, the question that no outsider can answer is how much clout Xi has with Putin to persuade him to change course in Ukraine and agree to come to serious negotiations, rather than to continue to bank on the kind of propaganda that Russia launched just before the war, declaring it was all the West’s and Kyiv’s fault.

Address Beijing, Not Moscow

The West has some options in trying to counter the impact of the deepening Chinese-Russian relationship on the war in Ukraine. The addressee must be China, not Russia, for as long as the war continues. First, China should be reminded that supplying lethal weapons to Russia will lead to secondary sanctions for China. It should also be made clear—as it already has been to the Kremlin—that any use of nuclear weapons by Russia will elicit a swift, robust response from NATO. Xi reportedly warned Putin in person that the use of nuclear weapons was inadmissible, although it is unclear what China would do if Russia were to detonate a tactical nuclear weapon.

A more challenging task is to engage China, even as Washington’s relationship with Beijing is  brittle. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen have recently visited Beijing seeking to resume a dialogue after the spy balloon incident and a long drought of contact. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and French President Emmanuel Macron have also visited. While it may be difficult to persuade China to distance itself from Russia, the West should refrain from taking actions that push them closer together. Europe is already engaged in a vigorous debate about how to deal with China—as Germany’s first China strategy paper shows—and, as long as China believes that it can continue to pursue profitable and productive ties with Europe it may have incentives to continue to play a mediating role between Russia, Ukraine, and Europe.

There is one area where the US and Europe should be doing more, and that is sustained outreach to the Global South. Often these countries’ neutrality or tacit support for Russia is a product of long-standing ideological antipathy to the United States. Moreover, some countries understand that, as a result of this war, with shifting coalitions emerging, they may have more say in the global order going forward.

While not countering that view, the West should make a better case for why a war far away in Europe does affect their future. If Russia can get away with invading and annexing a neighbor’s territory, what does that mean for their future sovereignty and territorial integrity? It is better to emphasize Russia’s violation of international law than to cast the conflict in terms of democracy versus autocracy. China has reiterated its commitment to the UN Charter and to states’ territorial integrity and sovereignty. Emphasizing that Russia disregards all of these is a first step to engaging the Global South in a more productive conversation about the war.

Angela Stent is a senior non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution and a senior advisor to the German Council on Foreign Relations’ (DGAP) Center for Eurasian, Russian, and Eastern European Studies. An updated edition of her book Putin’s World: Russia Against the West and with the Rest was published earlier this year.