How Russia and China alliance might not be everything that Putin hoped it would be

Ukraine was 'has been a wake up call' for China says expert

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As Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine continues to stir global uproar, more than 10 million Ukrainians have fled their homes, and Russian aggression continues to cause untold devastation to cities across Ukraine. The war has triggered an unprecedented international response – much more so than what Putin could have possibly planned for.

An overwhelming vote by 141 countries at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly called to adopt a resolution to denounce the Russian offensive, with only 35 abstaining from the vote.

Countries across Europe are overturning decade-long approaches to their respective defence policies in response; more are leaning toward joining global security alliances such as NATO. And even more are issuing crippling sanctions on Russia to further deter the continuation of war.

Sir Jeremy Fleming, director of GCHQ, the UK’s Intelligence, Cyber and Security Agency, said: “The choices will affect the global order and our national securities for decades to come.”

However, amongst the unifying global response to the offensive, the seemingly few countries in support of Russia become more distinctive – although the sustainability of this support is brought into question.

China is a long-standing ally of Russia – dating back to the 1950s – and the two have always maintained a close partnership. Its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine bears no exception.

Although they have no formal alliance, the countries have an informal agreement to coordinate diplomatic and economic moves, and generally unite against the West.

In the current crisis, Russia sees China as a supplier of weapons, a provider of technology, a market for its hydrocarbons, and a player to circumvent the heavy sanctions imposed by the West.

Since the invasion began, China has continually dismissed propositions to isolate Russia, refusing to follow what it terms the West’s “unilateral” sanctions, and Chinese state media has been blaming NATO for the war.

However, there are risks to this close alignment long term. As disparity between military and economic strength of the two countries widens, China may not need Russia as much in the future as it does now.

Sir Jeremy said: “We know both Presidents Xi and Putin place great value on their personal relationships… but Xi’s calculus is more nuanced.

“He’s not publicly condemned the invasion, presumably calculating that it helps him oppose the US. And, with an eye on re-taking Taiwan, China doesn’t want to do anything which may constrain its ability to move in the future.

However, he continued: “It is equally clear that a China that wants to set the rules of the road – the norms for a new global governance – is not well served by a close alliance with a regime that willfully and illegally ignores them all.”

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“Russia understands that China will become increasingly strong militarily and economically in the long term. Some of their interests conflict and Russia could be squeezed out of the equation.”

Russia’s actions put China in an awkward diplomatic position. As a country that preaches international relations to be based on the principle of “noninterference” in the affairs of other states, there is no greater interference than invasion.

China is also far too integrated into the global economy to risk being sanctioned for heavier support for Russia – as warned by US President Joe Biden last week.

Alexander Gabuev, senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center, told The Atlantic: “The Chinese want to benefit as much from participation in the global economy and supply chains as they can.

“For China, the description of what ‘great power’ actually means is much more pragmatic, is less emotional, and is far more visionary, long term, than Putin’s obsession with dominating Ukraine.”

Ultimately, China’s priority is China, and although Beijing has claimed its relationship with Moscow is “rock solid”, it’s believed actions that compromise its own agenda will not be taken.

An EU-China summit is due to take place on April 1, where leaders hope to discuss the offensive and make sure “[China] is not supporting Russia’s aggressive war in Ukraine”.

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