The Cost Is Quickly Rising for China’s Embrace of Putin

When Wang Jixian moved to the southern Ukrainian port city of Odessa, he didn’t expect to find himself in the middle of a war. But as the 37-year-old software engineer picked up his cellphone and began posting online the reality of life under Russian bombardment—wailing sirens, booming artillery, buskers on fretful streets—he soon found himself under attack from a more surprising quarter: the Chinese government and nationalist trolls, who objected to Wang’s stark portrayal of Russian aggression that chafed with Beijing’s official narrative.

Wang’s Weibo social media account was blocked for “spreading rumors” and strangers started issuing expletive-riddled threats on his Wechat account. “I’m dealing with a war on two fronts,” Wang told Voice of America. “The battlefield I’m faced with here is terrifying, but at least I can see the tanks. But the other battlefield lurking behind me is even scarier … I don’t know who’s in it, but they’re all telling me that they want me dead.”

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China’s censorship of Wang and other independent voices on Ukraine underscores the contradictory position that the Beijing government has adopted since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Feb. 24 assault on Ukraine: on one hand upholding sovereignty, territorial integrity, and the rules-based international order; on the other refusing to condemn Putin’s invasion nor even call it one.

“For a major power like China, which is poised to become the world’s largest economy in less than 10 years, the most important thing is to strike a balance,” says Zhou Bo, a retired PLA senior colonel and senior fellow at the Center for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University Zhou.

Over days and weeks of probing questions, China’s spokespeople settled on a line: The war is caused by NATO’s expansionism, which Russia is defending itself against. In an emailed statement March 18, China’s embassy in London said that Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke with Putin on the second day of the conflict and “expressed China’s hope to see Russia and Ukraine hold peace talks as early as possible.” Putin’s escalation since then—including the near total destruction of the eastern city of Mariupol—hardly indicates that he took Xi’s words to heart.

On April 1, Xi met E.U. E.U. leaders met in a virtual summit. They discussed efforts to revive the stalled Comprehensive Agreement of Investment. The pact is currently being challenged by allegations of forced labour and abuses of human rights in Xinjiang. Just further exacerbates the bad feeling is the refusal to end the bloodshed in Ukraine.

How much sway China has over Putin’s Ukraine invasion is a contentious matter. An intelligence source in the West claimed that top Chinese officials requested their Russian counterparts to postpone the invasion until after the Winter Olympics. Qin Gang was the Chinese ambassador in Washington. Post March 16, saying “had China known about the imminent crisis, we would have tried our best to prevent it.”

China can be compared to watching a magician perform: you may listen but not pay attention to what is happening. And China’s ActionsIt is a risky and cynical way to support Vladimir Putin. Xi has often spoken of a world buffeted by “changes unseen in 100 years.” If Western sanctions targeting Russia’s economy, oligarchs and industry fail, it would confirm America’s decline as a superpower—and perhaps Xi would have less to fear from blowback were he to pursue his own strategic targets, such as reuniting self-ruling Taiwan.

But it’s looking increasingly likely that Beijing has its strategic calculus wrong. Putin’s offensive is foundering (for now, at least), and NATO has rarely been more united, as members announce a raft of defense spending hikes. A defeat for Putin just after he and Xi declared a “no limits” partnership in a high-profile meeting ahead of the Beijing Olympics would be an embarrassment for the Chinese Communist Party leader just as he is seeking a protocol-shredding third term. And in Putin, China has a “partner” with neither scruples nor, it’s becoming increasingly apparent, a sense of reality.

“It’s quite exposing for China,” says Kerry Brown, director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London. “It’s pushed a lot of decisions on them far quicker than they were expecting, making them declare their hand in ways where they don’t want to.”

Russia’s high costs

Beijing’s initial approach was to deal with the crisis through inaction, on the assumption that you can’t punish inactivity. Things are changing at a rapid pace that makes it more difficult for China to take proactive steps. On the one hand, China doesn’t want to align with Russia, which is antagonizing and angering Western countries who remain their biggest trade partners. But on the other, Beijing doesn’t want a continuation of American-led Western dominance, which it felt was already waning.

China quickly denied reports that Russia requested military aid. Although it is natural for Putin that he wants to embroil China, Beijing also has more to gain than to help the Ukrainian invasion. And any help would mostly be symbolic—though China retains close military ties with Russia, with the two countries staging frequent joint-exercises including naval maneuvers in the Mediterranean and the Baltic seas—there’s little interoperability between their forces. The first exercises that saw Russian troops using Chinese weapons, joint command-and control and military equipment in the north-west China region last year involved around 10,000 Russian and Chinese soldiers. It will be costly and risky to impose harsh sanctions on Russia. It doesn’t make much sense for Beijing to pay that for Russia, which they consider a regional power with a limited sphere of influence, whereas China today is a global player with interests on every continent—the only true rival to the United States.

Learn More How China’s Response to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Could Upend the World Order

“If China and Russia engage in a military alliance, the whole world would change,” says Zhou. “Western countries, no matter how strong their economic relationship with China, will definitely follow America and stand on their side. This will result in two sides and the repetition of Cold War. It is vital for China that Russia has a non-aligned relationship even though they are friends. And this is totally possible.”

Why Beijing won’t try to stop Putin

At the same time, if the West believes it can shame China into isolating Russia, it’s kidding itself. Beijing has been supporting a rogue, nuclear-armed state at its borders for years because it considers dealing with Kim Jong Un preferable than a U.S.-allied Korean Peninsula. If the threat of nuclear catastrophe combined with the plight of 25 million North Koreans subject to U.N.-designated “crimes against humanity” doesn’t sway China’s leaders, 4 million Ukrainian refugees won’t warrant a shrug. Beijing is proving that it only acts in the highest traditions of self-interest. And so, it’s doubtful that Beijing will suddenly oppose Putin as he attempts to carve up the world into spheres of influence, with NATO, and America’s role severely diminished.

In this sense, joining Western sanctions are contrary to China’s self-interest, given that handing NATO an easy victory would reenergize a newly confident, united, America-led Western alliance. China is seeking a more confident, less-zealous West that it can deal with. More unity and purposefulness will spell trouble. “Russia is causing that to happen,” says Brown. “But it’s still not a solution for China to align with the West as that actually brings about the very thing that it doesn’t want. It just shows this rather torturous position they’re in.”

It’s also likely that the West is inflating the clout Beijing has over the Kremlin to distract from its own culpability. China is not interested in Russian oil or gas products. True, bilateral trade rose 33.6% year-on-year to some $140 billion in 2021, when Russia was China’s second largest crude oil supplier, accounting for some 15.5% of China’s total imports. The 10 billion cubic metres of gas China bought in 2021 was dwarfed only by the 175 million cubic meters Russia shipped to Europe that same year. For leverage over Russia’s economy, European leaders should look closer to home.

Ultimately, it’s a war that looks unwinnable, while perpetually muddying China’s international reputation, stirring up antagonism in Washington and Europe. None of that speaks to China’s interest, being the self-appointed global superpower in waiting. And while China may be winning the domestic propaganda war for now, voices like Wang’s in Odessa—who has more than 100,000 subscribers on Youtube—will get louder as the war drags on and more people ask questions. “[Ukrainians] are fighting for their homes …Why should they be bombed?” he posted March 4. “It’s just that simple; it’s got nothing to do with NATO. People just want to be able to live their lives.”

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