Did China place a losing bet on Russia?

Early in the Russia-Ukraine war, having placed the bet on Vladimir Putin, China was declared by most international analysts as among the war’s biggest losers. Four months later and with no sign of war ending any time soon, some observers are reminding us China has a record of winning despite betting on losers.

Given one’s political outlook, both Russia and the United States can be blamed for the outbreak of and dragging on of the brutal war in Ukraine. While Moscow is being faulted for “its flagrant violation” of the prohibition of aggressive war, Washington on the other hand is accused of “irresponsible statecraft” and “imprudent geopolitics.” At the same time, though China is not directly involved in the geopolitics of the Ukrainian conflict and nor is Beijing geographically anywhere near the Russia-Ukraine conflict zone, yet worsening US-China political rivalry and growing China-Russia “no limit” mutual commitment in recent years has ensured Beijing too must share blame for abdicating the responsibility of a “trusted intermediary.”

But before we begin the blame game for who is the chief perpetrator of the war in Ukraine, it would help to first know the biggest winner in the Ukraine conflict.

Those who put the blame entirely on the Russian leader Vladimir Putin for initiating the chilling act of aggression against Ukraine in the early hours of February 24, actually see Russia’s “bombardment mark a dramatic escalation in a war it waged against Kyiv since 2014.” But the preparations for the latest military assault stretch back to at least the spring of 2021, they say. Accordingly, it was Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky frustrating Putin by not agreeing to implement the Minsk agreements on Moscow’s terms which finally triggered the Kremlin. Besides, the political rhetoric is too well known to all that Putin’s inhuman aggression was the result of his long-cherished desire to be taken seriously as an international leader.   

On the other hand, those upholding the view that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is a reactionary response to the persistent US arming of Ukraine and goading and provoking Russia, also believe the US has transformed Ukraine into America’s “cannon fodder” in order to weaken and destabilize Russia. In the context of the ongoing war in Ukraine, frequent references are cited from Zbigniew Brzezinski’s 1997 book The Grand Chessboard in which the former US security adviser had laid out the American military’s intention of drawing Russia into a prolonged and costly invasion of Ukraine. Brzezinski always advocated Ukraine was critical to the US asserting its hegemony against Russia in Eurasia. In the title of the book cited above, the chessboard was Eurasia. Furthermore, writing in the article “The West Should Arm Ukraine” for the Atlantic Council following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, Brzezinski declared: “Russian invasion of Ukraine is a near certainty.” 

Quite remarkably, amid claims and counterclaims of either the US or Russia being the biggest winner in the war in Ukraine, there is a flood of analyses both in favor and against China being viewed as the biggest winner. Let us see why and what is the truth.   

China, interestingly, seems to have been wrong-footed in the war raging in Europe from the very beginning. First, a rupture was caused just days before Russia’s bombardment when President Xi Jinping declared “friendship with Moscow has no limits” after signing a joint statement with President Putin during the latter’s visit to Beijing on the eve of the Beijing Winter Olympics in early February. When Russia invaded Ukraine a couple of weeks later, the world refused to believe, true or not, that Xi had not been taken into confidence by the Kremlin. Though months after the two “bosom buddies” declared their “no limits” partnership aka “alliance,” it became ever more clearly known that Beijing and Moscow after all do observe “limits” to their relationship, but the public perception did not change.

Second, there is this widespread western misconstrued perception that since the invasion Beijing had been projecting itself as a “confused” neutral bystander out of a growing feeling that Moscow was becoming an inconvenient partner. For example, as the war in Ukraine was dragging on, the British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace is reported to have commented that Beijing increasingly saw Moscow as an “inconvenient friend.” In reality, however, as has been confirmed in Xi’s June 15 birthday call message to Putin, Xi not only ignored the Western warnings to refrain from offering economic and technical assistance to Moscow but he also reassured the Russian leader of further development of economic, military, and defense ties with Beijing.     

Third, while the world instantaneously took notice of the China and Russia joint statement of February 4 declaring their “no limit” commitment to deepen bilateral cooperation in all fields, it is unfortunate that no one has been paying attention to the factors compelling the world’s two most powerful military powers after the US, to “slowly and surely cement their relationship, especially on the economic, diplomatic, and military fronts.” According to a recent joint commentary by three international affairs experts, the “Chinese-Russian alliance aims largely at defending the two countries’ regional and international interests, which are in constant expansion.”  

It is important to remember, that at the core of the raging war in Europe is the rapidly changing geopolitics in the region and beyond and not the other way round, as it were. The changing geopolitical dynamics are the result of, among other factors, the politics of NATO expansionism. Once again, it would be a mistake to believe that Taiwan could be the next (or Asia’s) Ukraine that is enabling the idea of NATO coming into the Indo-Pacific to acquire traction. On the contrary, as Martine Bulard, a member of Le Monde Diplomatique editorial team had in a telling commentary entitled “Is an Asian NATO imminent” a year ago written, it is the West’s pivot to Asia that has heightened tensions in the Indo-Pacific.

Recall here last year’s twin visits to Asia by the US secretaries of state and defense, Anthony Blinken and Lloyd Austin, with the agenda to pull South Korea into a Quad+ format that could also include European powers as well. As experts in South Korea were calling the effort “to multilateralise the US-led hub-and-spoke bilateral alliance system,” Bulard noted that other experts were already talking of “a possible extension of NATO or establishment of a kind of Asian NATO against the ‘Chinese dictatorship’.” It was no mere coincidence that a NATO ministerial conference in Brussels in March 2021 set out to “respond to potential challenges posed by China” as one of its key security priorities. Nor is NATO’s new “strategic concept” adopted by its 30 leaders in Madrid on June 29, 2022, that China and Russia are threats to the global order.    

In conclusion, it may be argued that the international opinion prematurely declared China to be among the biggest losers in Russia’s brutal conflict in Ukraine. Of course, on its part, China did continue to send out confusing and at times inconsistent, incoherent statements. Sometimes Beijing’s actions sparked all-around speculations that the “no limit” Moscow-Beijing alliance has reached its limits. Recently when Chinese vice foreign minister Le Yucheng was suddenly removed from the ministry, a Bloomberg report carried by the Japan Times wondered if the topmost Russia-hand in Beijing had been made to pay the price for pushing China too close to Russia? 

But notwithstanding the opaque nature of the decision-making in one-party-ruled China, factors such as internal political complexities in the run-up to the crucial 20th CPC National Congress in the month of October, and tension arising out of uncertainty to decide upon a new foreign minister (Le Yucheng was expected to replace foreign minister Wang Yi at the ministerial reshuffle at the Party’s National Congress) are also being cited behind the move to shunt out Le from the foreign ministry. However, President Xi’s June 15 birthday call to the Russian leader has put to bed any speculation of China regretting betting on Moscow. As long as the geopolitics determines for the United States that the Indo-Pacific would remain the US playground, Russia will remain a vital and useful ally for Beijing.

As someone recently commented, Beijing will not ditch Moscow. A Chinese academic who recently wrote in an article that the sanctions have not at all impacted Russia’s economic fundamentals received a record over five hundred thousand visitors within 72 hours. Another Chinese commentary “advised” the Party leadership that “only by strengthening and deepening partnership with Russia can China thwart the West’s designs to isolate, blockade and contain China.” A former US ambassador recently observed: “China’s tilt towards Moscow, may now appear the height of folly. But China has a record of winning despite betting on losers.”   

Hemant Adlakha
Hemant Adlakha
Hemant Adlakha is professor of Chinese, Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. He is also vice chairperson and an Honorary Fellow, Institute of Chinese Studies (ICS), Delhi.