China Faces the Consequences of Supporting Russia
Beijing’s burgeoning partnership with Moscow, and its sympathy for the Russian position, inevitably faced a collision between the desire to keep its European ties in decent order and the complications of dealing with secondary sanctions. Nonetheless, with an appropriately ingenious level of diplomatic squirming, there was every possibility of China coming out with its position strengthened. This was the post-2014 template. A position of agonized neutrality after the Crimea annexation translated into greater Russian dependence on Beijing, and a Europe that still drew positive contrasts between Russia the disruptor and China the stabilizer. Beijing could also have expected to see US energies sucked away from the Indo-Pacific to deal with a security crisis in Europe that extends well beyond Ukraine.
Instead, China made life far harder for itself. The decision to provide such open backing to Russia in the run-up to the invasion, epitomized by the “no limits” joint statement and President Vladimir Putin’s visit, tied China—and Xi Jinping himself—directly to the war. Aggrieved Chinese officials are now complaining about the US push to highlight the scale and scope of the Sino-Russian relationship, most recently their growing military ties. But it was a Chinese decision to give explicit support to Russia’s demands for a rollback of the post-Cold War European security order during the pre-war crisis diplomacy. While Beijing can argue that it believed Russia was “only” trying to coerce concessions or stage a more limited military intervention, this “reassurance” only amounts to China arguing that it had extended its backing with the expectation that Moscow would succeed. Unsurprisingly, the result was that several European leaders, including the president of the European Commission and the NATO Secretary General, started speaking of China and Russia as a conjoined threat. This was not a lazy conflation of authoritarian powers, but rather a facing-up to the bleak consequences of the decisions that Xi appeared to have taken.
China now faces numerous adverse consequences. The coalition sanctioning Russia extends well beyond the United States and Europe to include Japan, Singapore, and other states that had been reluctant to take similar steps in 2014. The sanctions toolkit itself looks substantially more robust than anticipated. The willingness of so many major international firms to exit the Russian market so quickly, even at such high cost, is cautionary. Some of the new mechanisms that have been put in place, especially on technology-related export controls, can be applied readily to China in the future. The information battle is playing in favor of the democracies, while the military battle looks far less one-sided than Moscow’s dominance would have suggested. The Russia that emerges from the crisis may be more dependent on China, but it is also likely to be a weaker partner, its global reach curtailed. Even dovish voices are making the case that Europe should learn from the mistake of excessive dependence on Russian energy when it comes to future dealings with China. Transatlantic burden-sharing efforts are now in a far better place as defense expenditure in Europe grows. Foreign capital has started to price in a higher China risk, given the risk of its being caught up in sanctions, too—or even repeating the experience itself at some future date. Meanwhile, the United States is tightening the screw, releasing a drip-feed of intelligence that demonstrates Chinese complicity in Russia’s war and heightens the cost of further support.
Since little of this is in China’s interest, there are suggestions—including from stray Chinese voices—that it should cut its losses, stop doubling down on a losing bet, and even “mediate” an end to the conflict. But it is often confusing what is meant by ”mediate,” given that China’s expertise on Ukraine, NATO, and European security is too limited for it to take on the real detail work of mediation. The sense is rather that Chinese influence on Russia could both help stop the war and win Beijing sufficient plaudits to undo the reputational damage it has recently accrued. Chinese officials have already spied an opportunity to suggest that China might take on a bigger role only if relations with the United States or Europe could be improved, or if they offer something in return.
While the costs for China are likely to go up as the Russian invasion enters an even bloodier phase, Beijing is more likely to swallow them than to reverse position.
However, while Beijing would very happily pocket any such concessions, its willingness to exert pressure on Moscow will be extraordinarily limited. It is unlikely that China believes that squeezing Russia will succeed, even if it were inclined to do so. Neither do the terms of Xi’s relationship with Putin imply any sense that the former believes it judicious to attempt to take on a “big brother” role, at the likely cost of many years of trust-building between the two sides. The analysis that China is now locked in a deadly rivalry with the United States and needs partners by its side is likely to hold, too, even if this serves as a reminder that those partners may damage Chinese interests if Beijing is too forward-leaning in backing their priorities. A weakened Russia remains an important military and energy partner, and Beijing will find a way to make the best of the additional leverage that is has gained. Walking away from Putin now is unlikely to gain China much credit and would only leave it more exposed. It has stuck by far less useful partners in the past. As a result, while the costs for China are likely to go up as the Russian invasion enters an even bloodier phase, Beijing is more likely to swallow them than to reverse position.
The net result is that the United States and its European and Asian allies will still have to live with deepened Sino-Russian cooperation, even if it may not take the shape that either Moscow or Beijing had anticipated during Putin’s visit. In the near term, that cooperation will be constrained by the need for China to mitigate the political fallout of its association with the invasion and the obstacles posed by the stringent sanctions. This offers a few gains: a Chinese abstention at the United Nations is preferable to a joint veto, and each decision not to risk bolstering Russia’s position in the war is a modest step toward a better outcome. But these tactical exigencies should not be mistaken for a walking-back of Chinese strategy. Beijing is stuck with the consequences of Xi’s decision to bind China’s fate so closely to Russia’s, and the rest of the world is stuck dealing with the consequences.