By Mel Gurtov United States foreign policy expert
Reports out of Washington suggest concerns that a Russia-China partnership would facilitate Vladimir Putin’s alleged ambition to absorb Ukraine and undermine Europe’s NATO-based security system. So let’s look at this relationship to gauge the US concern.
Aligned but not allied
When it comes to supporting China on international issues, human rights in Taiwan, Beijing can always count on Putin’s Russia. And the reverse is usually true. In numerous meetings since Xi and Putin became the main leaders, Sino-Russian relations have always been described in the most exalted terms. They are “dear friends”, they have “the best [relations] in history”, they are “a model of interstate cooperation in the 21st century”. Sino-Russian trade has increased significantly every year; China is Russia’s most important trading partner. Joint military maneuvers have become a regular event. Symbol of their closeness, Putin attended the Winter Olympics in Beijing, defying the American call for a diplomatic boycott of the games.
China and Russia agree in viewing the United States as their main adversary and main obstacle to achieving their respective goals in Asia and Europe. But their marriage is a marriage of convenience, not a covenant of security. They are divided by many issues, including a history of conflicting national interests and ideological differences, unresolved land claims, and the wide gap between them in economics and technology.
While US analyzes typically lump China and Russia together as threats to US national security, they are actually far apart in their international conduct. Unlike Russia, China has taken full advantage of globalization, whether in UN peacekeeping contributions and tourism, academic and scientific exchanges or overseas investments, especially with the United States. Thomas Christensen reports:
a former Chinese diplomat stationed in Russia, Shi Ze, who summed up the difference between Moscow and Beijing as follows: “China and Russia have different attitudes. Russia wants to break the current international order… Russia thinks that it is a victim of the current international system, in which its economy and society are not developing. But China benefits from the current international system. We want to improve and modify it, not break it.
While Russia relies heavily on military power to impose its will in its near abroad, China mainly projects its influence through soft power: the Belt and Road Initiative, Confucius Institutes, sporting events, radio and television programs and public diplomacy financed by money. .
The Putin-Xi meeting in Beijing
Putin’s visit to China at the height of the Ukraine crisis has prompted comparisons between Russian and Chinese diplomacy on Ukraine and Taiwan, respectively. On the surface, Russian and Chinese views seem similar. Putin and Xi generally believe that these territories cannot be considered independent states, historically and culturally belong to the motherland, and can only be absorbed due to foreign interference. Yet they know full well that the people of Ukraine and Taiwan reject absorption. Both leaders appear to be taking the matter personally, seeing the recovery of Ukraine and Taiwan as a fitting testament to their legacy as great leaders. But there the similarities
But there the similarities end. Putin considers Ukraine a security threat due to NATO’s eastward expansion and has deployed sufficient forces along the Ukrainian border to take control of the country. Its ultimate goal, according to many observers, is to rebuild the European security order.
In contrast, Xi has so far adhered to the goal of peaceful unification of Taiwan. China has shown its military capabilities in the Taiwan region, but has not threatened Taiwan with attack or asserted that Taiwan poses a threat to the mainland. Nor did China seek to stir up a pro-China force inside Taiwan or demand the dismantling of the US alliance system in Asia.
China’s policy on the Ukraine crisis seems to imply only cautious support from Russia. Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged the United States to adopt a “balanced” approach that would encompass Russia’s “reasonable security concerns”. Putin-Xi’s final text on their talks – at least the Chinese version – reflected this view. Yes, they agreed that the relationship had “no boundaries,” but it surely does. Ukraine is not mentioned at all, the text merely saying: “Both sides oppose the continued expansion of NATO and call on NATO to reject Cold War ideology and respect the sovereignty, security, interests and multicultures of other countries.
Tellingly, the lengthy declaration devoted much more space to cooperation on sustainable development (which is part of the title of the declaration), the pandemic, trade, human rights and arms control, as well than to a whole host of common threats from the United States and the west.
Keep in mind that while China supported recent Russian interventions in Kazakhstan and Belarus to suppress potential regime change, it did not support Russia’s 2014 takeover of Crimea. a common front with Russia against Western incursions means much more to Beijing than encouraging a Russian territorial takeover, the economic and political consequences of which would go far beyond Europe.
A war, even if it is only economic, would further alienate China from Europe and the United States, damage the Chinese economy (as the Biden administration warned) and perhaps show cast a shadow over Xi’s “peaceful unification” policy in Taiwan. China would surely help Russia escape the worst effects of US and European sanctions, but buying Russian products has its limits. It should also be noted that China has a lucrative economic relationship with Ukraine: its arms factories are highly valued in China, and China is Ukraine’s most important export market.
Thus, China prefers a diplomatic resolution to Ukraine. But there is no question of putting pressure on it at the request of the State Department, which would have asked for help from China. A US policy of engagement with China would set a different tone, amounting to a new triangular diplomacy designed to induce China to move away from Russia.
But in any case, the United States should stop confusing China with Russia; their mutual admiration hides more than it reveals.