Guest Column

On Ukraine, China Makes a Bet on Putin

By Martin Hala 14 March 2022

The worse-than-expected course of the Russian war campaign against Ukraine has startled the Chinese leadership. As part of the “Olympic Pact”, Russian President Vladimir Putin allegedly informed his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Beijing on Feb. 4 that it would be a lightning “special military operation” that would put before the world a “fait accompli”, similar to the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Beijing would not have to comment on such a “fait accompli” beyond the usual generic phrases about diplomatic solutions and calls for restraint on all sides.

The fog is clearing

After the launch of the “special operation”, Beijing duly took to churning out such meaningless statements. However, the plan for a “lightning strike” was based on erroneous assumptions and quickly failed when confronted with the determined resistance of the Ukrainian army and civilians. The “special military operation” has become a regular, nasty  war, and the official Chinese statements—which strictly avoid, just like in Russia, the “W-word”—suddenly find themselves completely detached from reality.

It was only this week, after much maneuvering, that Chinese officials began to speak a little more clearly. At Tuesday’s press conference on the occasion of the top political event of the season (the so-called Two Sessions, which bring together the top political advisory body and the national legislature, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress and the National People’s Congress), Foreign Minister Wang Yi very openly sided with the Russian cause. China’s official position has thus come closer to the unofficial one, which in the strictly controlled media and on the almost equally strictly controlled Internet, has unabashedly sided with Russia from the get-go.

Fair-weather friends

However, open support for the Kremlin carries considerable risks, which is why Beijing has been so vague for so long in the first place. By unleashing an absurd war against a much smaller neighbor, Putin literally became an outcast overnight before world public opinion. Not even Xi Jinping wants to be thrown into the same bag with him, the declared “alliance without borders” between Russia and China notwithstanding.

Although Beijing shares, at least in the short term, a number of common objectives with Moscow, it is trying to achieve them in very different ways. Over the years, Beijing has carefully built an image of “mutually beneficial cooperation” with the rest of the world, in which China’s rapid growth poses no risks to anybody, only economic opportunities. Xi doesn’t want to burn this political capital just because of his hot-headed “ally without borders”.

Send in the Wolves! 

So where has the sudden change in tone come from? Beijing seems to have realized that the previous ambiguity is unsustainable in the long run. It is also likely a sign that the fighting spirit the country has shown of late prevails, perhaps in connection with the Two Sessions. Such rhetorical valor has been evident at the Chinese Foreign Ministry for some time, for example in the so-called “wolf warrior diplomacy“.

The message seems to be: “If the West wants a confrontation, we’ll give it to them, alright.” Putin’s berserk bloodshed in Ukraine has only accelerated the long-running and now seemingly irreversible process of splitting the world into two large blocs with democracies and authoritarian regimes on opposing sides of the notional barricade.

China has long resisted such an open split, having benefited handsomely from unfettered access to open societies in the West and elsewhere in the world, especially from the rather one-sided trade and technology transfer. One of the consequences of the war in Ukraine will be increased Western vigilance against undemocratic regimes, which will also affect China and make such asymmetric relationships more difficult.

Chinese Canada or another North Korea?

The Chinese leadership may have simply concluded that it now stands ready for the upcoming “decoupling”. If it is inevitable, then there is not so much to lose by supporting Moscow. On the plus side, Russia’s international isolation may even be an advantage for China, leading to an even greater Kremlin dependence on Beijing. A tongue-in-cheek saying has it that Beijing has so far viewed Russia as “its own Canada”—a safe hinterland and source of wheat and raw materials. Russia’s impending isolation will make it not so much China’s Canada, but another North Korea, a country completely dependent on Beijing’s benevolence.

Probably the only scenario that could reverse such an outlook would be regime change in Moscow. China would lose today’s ally and tomorrow’s vassal; instead, a powerful competitor might emerge. Such a prospect presents Beijing with rather simple choices and suggests why China would maintain its support for Putin despite the initial wavering, at the risk of hastening a rift with the West and possibly even secondary sanctions against Chinese entities helping to circumvent the sanctions regime against Russia.

The author is a sinologist and founding director of the Sinopsis project. This article was first published in Czech.

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