Parsing China’s policy towards Russia from realpolitik not fantasy

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Since the Russian-Ukrainian war broke out four months ago, the global attention has been focused on how it could end and what consequences it would lead to if it will be escalated into a large scale war? There is no question that the American-Anglo clique aims to push for a total war against Russia since they have allied the so-called shared-values followers, approximately 40-60 states but never the majority of the international community, to have launched a hybrid war with a view to completely weaken Russia as a major power in the global arena of the 21st century. As Russian expert Dmitry Trenin said recently that “The challenge Russia is facing has no equivalents in our history. It’s not just that we have neither allies nor even potential partners left in the West. Frequent comparisons with the Cold War of the mid and late 20th century are inaccurate and rather disorienting.” Thinking of the U.S. global strategy, it is fair to argue that the U.S.-led NATO are desperately striving to exclude Russia from world politics and to completely destroy the Russian economy. In so doing, the success of this strategy would allow the US-led West to finally resolve the “Russia question” and create favorable prospects for victory in the confrontation with China.

As key strategic partners, China and Russia have enhanced their strategic relations without top ceiling” which were confirmed by the affinity between the two countries’ presidents. Due to this, international scholars have inquired the possibilities whether China could act as an “honest broker” to mediate the conflict between Russia and Ukraine. As a result, a successful mediating might likely win China’s prestige as a responsible power globally. However, such historical analogues are of very limited relevance today, particularly considering that the United States openly declared that China is a long-term rival but Russia is the current threat to its primacy in the world.

Realpolitik or principled neutrality?

First, China’s realpolitik is based on its “back-to-back” strategic partnership with Russia as discussed widely since it has rich natural resources and a formidable nuclear arsenal. As Russian official line holds, the two greatest powers of Eurasia are the biggest strategic partners to each other’s strength. Echoing his remark, on 19 April, Chinese senior diplomat Le Yucheng revealed to the Russian Ambassador to China Andrey Denisov that “[n]o matter how the international situation evolves, China will, as always, strengthen strategic coordination with Russia and jointly safeguard the common interests of both sides.” This is not lip service but geostrategic reality recognized by the leaders in both Beijing and Moscow since the United States formally perceives China and Russia as strategic rivals in a much more radical way than the conservative containment and deterrence strategies used during the Cold War.

Second, much like other countries and most great powers, China’s power potential is shaped by its geography, and this drives its geopolitical strategy. Although the war in Ukraine drags on, Russia remains a vital strategic partner for China’s steady rise in terms of nuclear technologies and sustainable energies supplies. If Russia falters in the war, China will be more isolated and could face increasing pressure from the US-led AUKUS and Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in the Indo-Pacific. For sure, with the war ongoing in Ukraine, China will certainly lose Ukraine as a significant trade partner and a key participant of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in Eastern Europe. This is the reasons underlying China’s dilemma on the ongoing war in Ukraine because it does find it deeply regrettable that “the situation in Ukraine has come to where it is today”, as Chinese President Xi revealed to the EU leaders in April.

Third, diplomatically, China has urged both Russia and Ukraine to comply with the tenets of the UN Charter and international norms. Yet, geostrategically, Beijing cannot but offer its political and diplomatic support to Moscow as its “NEWS” (north, east, west and south) security doctrine which was adopted in 2016 has defined the country’s northern border to be secured through a quasi-alliance with a strong Russia. Doing so would allow China to concentrate its military forces on the looming threats near the Taiwan Straits and the South China Sea. In addition, China has steadily pushed forward its geostrategic goals such as the BRI in Central Asia and the Middle East in the west as well as to ASEAN in the south. There is no question that contemporary China’s geopolitical thinking continues to be driven by the ancient wisdom of “if the lips are gone, the teeth will be under immediate threat” (or: China and Russia share a lot in common).

Looking to the post-war era

So far, although the US and EU have tried to persuade or warn China and other countries to side with the anti-Russian movement, Beijing reiterates that it has continued to work with the  international community headed by the United Nations rather than any political bloc. During the Ukraine crisis, China has adhered to a more or less neutral policy in calling for a ceasefire to end the war and also endorsed the two sides to carry out direct dialogue for peace. It was encouraging for China to see that India, Pakistan, Indonesia and many others in the Global South have decided not to side with the anti-Russian group at the UN General Assembly vote on a resolution condemning Russia’s invasion. Actually, these countries including China have opined that even if Moscow’s reputation as a formidable military power has suffered a serious blow during the ongoing war in Ukraine, it will be able to re-emerge as a stronger power in a short time both militarily economically since Russia has huge natural resources, very impressive military and industrial capacity.

Yet, it is an illusory hope that that Russia’s opponents will listen to reason or be represented by more moderate political figures as a result of internal upheavals in their countries. Thus, the systemic confrontation between the West and Russia is likely to be protracted. It is also self-evident that over the past a few years the world have seen the desire of the “collective West” to destroy international law and instead introduce a “world order based on Western rules.” That is, instead of international law, their shared values and agreements, an extremely dangerous change of the status quo, because it implies the dictates of one group of countries. Both legally and morally, each country has the right to a sovereign foreign and domestic policy, to defend its core interests, to develop its economy, humanitarian rights, and its own security. History teaches us when only one group of countries seizes power or claims to seize this power, one must expect many devastating consequences. In light of this, it is likely that in the post-war world order, China and Russia will work more closely to promote a ‘multilateral world order’ which is based on the majority of the international community instead of a rich countries’ club like the G-7 or the globalized NATO.

There is mutual understanding between the leaders of Russia and China that Washington has intended to view both countries as its adversaries — China as its main competitor and Russia as the main current threat. Yet, both Beijing and Moscow have entertained no design to overthrow the US-centric world order by any means and at any price although they are reluctant to accept U.S. global hegemony. China has reiterated that the Sino-Russian strategic partnership has developed in line with their good-neighbourhood and shared security interests “without targeting the third parties.” Literally, Beijing is not a formal ally of Moscow but China is Russia’s largest economic partner and has been consistent supportive of Russia politically and diplomatically since the Ukraine war broke out even though Beijing senses the potential discomfiture. Alongside the bilateral relations, China and Russia have advanced the multilateral interaction between states in the non-Western part of the world and given a greater focus on building international institutions—the Eurasian Economic Union, the Collective Security Treaty Organization, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, BRICS and potentially regrouping of the Russia-India-China security dialogue. Russia is capable of playing a seminal role in coordinating the interests of partner countries within these institutions.

For sure, there are challenges ahead for China and Russia; yet the bottom line is that in today’s world where is dominated by the U.S.-led allies and partners,  together China and Russia are much stronger and securer. .

Paul Wang
Paul Wang
Wang Li is Professor of International Relations and Diplomacy at the School of International and Public Affairs, Jilin University China.