Although it officially has a close partnership with Russia, China is in no hurry to support it now, when it faces economic and military issues as a result of the invasion of Ukraine. With the image affected by the way it handles the current pandemic wave, Beijing does not need more negative publicity now that Xi Jinping is preparing for a new term at the helm of the country. Moreover, the war in Ukraine seems to have affected China's plans to bring Taiwan under its control.
The pandemic and the war in Ukraine mess up with Xi Jinping’s arrangements
Patrols dressed in protective suits, people dragged from their own homes, which are turned into quarantine centers, grilles fit on the staircases of blocks of flats, massive testing, total isolation, people shouting desperately from their windows: this, in just a few words, is the picture of Shanghai hit by Omicron and the so-called “ZERO COVID” policy of the communist regime in Beijing. However, this image of a huge, closed city, in which Chinese propaganda assures us that it has full control, would almost have gone unnoticed against the background of the war in Ukraine, if there were no cracks in the censorship apparatus of the Chinese regime and footage taken Chinese people had not reached the free world.
During the pandemic, China, the source of the new coronavirus that claimed 15 million lives worldwide, took the toughest steps to manage the spread of the disease. And if we look at the numbers, since the end of 2019, Beijing has reported just over 5,000 deaths , compared to the US where nearly a million people have died of Covid. If we were to believe these figures, although the WHO has recently corrected the actual number of pandemic-related deaths, stating that the reports made by many states were erroneous for various reasons, but if we were to belive the statistics published by worldometers , we could say that the ZERO COVID policy, based on draconian restrictions, was auspicious. So why aren't all these measures working in Shanghai, where the Omicron version is spreading so fast?
For those of us who lived under the communist regime, I do not think it is too difficult to make a connection between Shanghai, China's stand on the war in Ukraine and the 20th congress of the Chinese Communist Party to be held this fall, when President Xi Jinping is to be re-elected, making him the first leader of Communist China, after Mao Zedong, who would get a third term.
The authoritarian leader in Beijing had already prepared the ground for this historic step. His plans were a bit messed up by the pandemic that severely affected China's economy. In addition, the effects of the draconian restrictions imposed are now felt at society level. Maybe the ZERO COVID policy has been just a warning to the 21st century Chinese who would like more freedom. A form of absolute control of the population that, no matter what, will not allow the re-enactment of the protest in Tiananmen Square in 1989, bloodily suppressed by the then regime in Beijing. What would a similar event to the one in Tiananmen Square mean now, when China’s relationship with the free world is strained?!
Communist Party Congress preparations force Xi Jinping to be cautious over the war in Ukraine
To China, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia is not a war, it’s an issue, a conflict or a situation, in other words, it is part of the Russian rhetoric about its “special action”. This does not mean that there have been no protests in China over Putin's war, especially in academia. The first to openly protest against the WAR, as they called it, were 5 Chinese academics. Their letter even appeared in the Chinese press , 4 days after the invasion. The teachers stated their position on the war, but did not indicate a direct disagreement with the Chinese government's reaction.
The autumn congress would also be an explanation for China's attitude towards the war in Ukraine. Perhaps Xi Jinping learned something after February 4 when, in Beijing, along with Vladimir Putin, he announced to the whole world that China's relationship with Russia was solid and boundless. This would have immediately translated into highly profitable gas contracts for China, which in turn should have helped even the military in Russia when needed. It is unclear, however, to what extent Beijing was informed of Russia's move on Ukraine or whether it anticipated the global reaction of condemnation. China is one of the largest markets for Russian oil, gas and coal.
Just one week before the invasion of Ukraine, the two countries agreed on a new Russian coal agreement worth more than 20 billion USD, and the oil and gas agreements have an estimated value of over 117 billion USD. China and Russia want to build a new gas pipeline, Power of Siberia 2. The first has been in operation since 2019. However, Russia's largest energy market has been by far the EU. In the long run, China could buy more gas from the Russians to reduce coal consumption. But data show that, for example, China's crude oil imports from Russia fell by 9% in the first two months of 2022. And even state refineries are no longer in a hurry to sign new contracts with the Russians.
The West’s response to the invasion of Ukraine made Beijing think
China's changing rhetoric shows that Beijing's power is struggling to balance its political choices. The West's quick and surprisingly united response to Russia's actions certainly made the communist regime think about its own intentions regarding Taiwan. The autumn congress requires more stability than ever with regard to China's domestic and international relations, and this seems to become increasingly difficult for Jinping.With regard to the war in Ukraine, China officially claims that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states (including Ukraine) should be respected and protected in accordance with the UN Charter, and that the legitimate security concerns of all countries should be respected. The category of legitimate security requirements also includes those of Russia, which invokes NATO enlargement when it comes to its security.
After the cordial and boundless relation declared at the beginning of the Olympic Games, ever since day 4 of the war in Ukraine, Beijing has been trying to make it clear that Russia and China are partner, not allied states at least according to the spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Minister at a press conference held on February 28th and published on the ministry’s official website.
Russia, a useful tool for China in its competition with the United States
A protracted conflict in Ukraine will continue to increase Russia's dependence on China in almost every way. For Beijing now, Moscow is just a tool that perfectly fits in the China-US geostrategic rivalry. On March 20, two days after the video meeting between Presidents Biden and Xi, China’s ambassador to the US stated: “China's trustworthy relations with Russia are not a responsibility, in fact, are an asset with regard to the international efforts to resolve the problem, the crisis, in a peaceful way. China is part of the solution, not part of the problem.” The ambassador's emphasis on China's “trustworthy” relations with Moscow and its role as “part of the solution” is Beijing's attempt to elevate China to the status of a “peaceful” arbitrator, to create the image of the one who solves a problem instead of adding fuel to the fire, a direct rebuke to the US leadership in the crisis in Ukraine.It is hard to believe that now, in this context, China could change its policy towards Russia. Abandoning Moscow would not solve or even mitigate the most important security challenge posed by the United States from Beijing’s perspective. Another reason why China will not change its rhetoric towards Russia, at least not as long as the war in Ukraine is in full swing, is internal. Right now, before the congress, the wisdom of the Chinese leader would be questioned after the joint statement on February 4. Even though Xi Jinping prepared his ground ahead of time, securing the camarilla he still needs to follow in Mao's footsteps, there is a dissident trend in the CCP, which Jinping has tolerated precisely in order to gain more legitimacy. A reorientation of China's policy towards Russia would be tantamount to admitting a gross mistake in the Jinping regime's policy and would allow this opposition trend to grow.
A weakened Russia benefits China in the long run
If the war in Ukraine is seen by many as a test of endurance for the Euro-Atlantic unity, what if we positioned ourselves on the other side of the barricade and looked at the war in Ukraine as a test for Russia's relationship primarily with China and then with the other Asian states to which Putin keeps saying he will reorient his economy? Let's recap. China does not want to be associated with Russia, but prefers a partnership status. China wants to take advantage of Russia's isolation to buy cheaper gas and oil. China will take a tough and selfish approach to Russia in the wake of the war in order to get the most out of its long-term foreign policy goals. The value of the relationship with Russia will be rendered in the light of economic, diplomatic and strategic interests. A Russia weakened by war and sanctions, but not chaotic and unstable, is in line with China's long-term interests.
Russia's isolation will further push it into a lower partner position in this relationship, while increasing its economic and strategic dependence on China. We do not know whether Beijing has already taken into account Russia’s unpredictability and aggression. While the war in Ukraine pushes the limits of China's assumptions about Russia's volatility, it does not fundamentally change Beijing's long-term calculations. A friendly, economically dependent and resource-rich Russia provides China with valuable and lasting strategic support, necessary for a long-term competition and potential confrontations with the United States.
On the other hand, we should take into account the fact that, after two years of pandemic, IMF’s forecasts for China’s economic growth are poor. This means that a global economic crisis, which everybody is talking about, will affect China as well and the question is whether the Beijing regime would be willing to sacrifice, for Russia’s sake, its important economic ties with the West.
There have been reports in the Western press that the Russians have called on China for help, including militarily, but at least so far Beijing has done very little to help Russia.
Xi Jinping is paying attention to Ukraine's lessons
I believe that the war in Ukraine is being closely watched primarily by China. I myself was thinking, I admit, with horror, of a possible simultaneous action of Russia and China - Ukraine, Taiwan. I now believe that Beijing is seriously reconsidering the idea of a forced reunification with Taiwan in the near future and given the current balance of power in East Asia. An invasion of Taiwan would be much more complex and perhaps even less predictable than in Ukraine. There, the risks of drawing the United States and its allies into a conflict are real and much greater.
But for Xi Jinping, the most important goal now is his re-election at the congress this fall. This does not mean that the Beijing regime has abandoned the Taiwan plan. It’s just no rush. Given the sanctions on Russia, China plans to take action as soon as possible to reduce its dependence on Western systems, technologies and financial resources. It is not easy given China's exposure to Western markets, capital and technology. And there's something else not to be overlooked. Xi Jinping does not control the Chinese oligarchs as Putin does the Russian ones. Such a plan will require their support, but after seeing what’s been happening with the Russians, some of the red capitalists are probably already working to uncouple them from the Beijing command center.
Rhetorically, China seems to be on Russia's side, but in practical terms, China will seek to protect its own interests. For now, these interests include selective engagement with the West.