As Western governments scramble to predict Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions toward Ukraine, one of the countries with the clearest view may be China: Putin is expected to visit Beijing for Friday’s Winter Olympics Opening Ceremonies and for talks with his Chinese counterpart.
“These two simultaneous challenges are much bigger than if the U.S. has to deal only with the China challenge or the Russia challenge,” said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Joe Biden’s team is only human: They have 24 hours [in a day].”
In Beijing, Putin will have his first offline meeting with President Xi Jinping in nearly two years, a long-anticipated opportunity for them to discuss Ukraine and other issues. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said the meeting will be “a major event in international relations.” The U.S. State Department called last week on Beijing to use its influence on Russia to push for a diplomatic solution to Moscow’s military buildup on Ukraine’s borders.
The last time China hosted the Olympics in 2008, Russia invaded Georgia, as Putin was in Beijing to watch the Opening Ceremonies. A similar move can’t be ruled out, analysts say, though the deepening of the China-Russia relationship since will make Putin warier about raining on the parade of his Chinese hosts.
China stands to benefit from the Ukraine crisis. It has monopolized the attention of Western governments at a time when they had planned to highlight China’s human rights violations with a diplomatic boycott of the Olympics. Also, if Russia suffers economic sanctions from the West, it could create business opportunities for China.
But M. Taylor Fravel, director of the security studies program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said there are also risks for China in a Ukraine war, so Russia shouldn’t count too much on Beijing’s support. China buys a significant amount of military equipment from Ukraine and would be caught in the middle, he said.
“China has been willing to a point to try to provide diplomatic support for Russia,” Fravel said. “But China doesn’t want to see armed conflict erupt.”
So far, though, China’s rhetoric internationally has been firmly in Russia’s corner. In a phone call Thursday with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, China’s foreign minister said Russia’s security concerns should be taken seriously and regional security could not be guaranteed by expanding military blocs — a clear reference to Russia’s objections to Ukraine potentially joining NATO.
“Wang stressed that the security of one country should not be at the expense of the security of others,” the state-run Xinhua news service reported.
Last month, Beijing also voiced support for Russia’s deployment of troops to Kazakhstan to quell unrest and echoed Putin’s characterization of it as a “color revolution” — a reference to the popular uprisings against pro-Moscow leaders in Eastern Europe during the 2000s that Russia maintains were orchestrated by the United States.
Xi and Putin have been united by U.S. sanctions against their countries, but also by their ambition to expand their international influence and hard-fisted governing styles. Both have rewritten their country’s laws to extend their own rule and cracked down harshly on those perceived as threats to their power.
“It was precisely the pressure of the United States on Russia and on China that provided this common platform,” said Alexey Maslov, director of the Institute of Asian and African Studies at Lomonosov Moscow State University. “Suddenly the countries got common interests, a common understanding of the situation, and the most important thing is that these countries have discovered some common values within themselves.”
Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi called Sino-Russian relations “the best in history” last year. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has lauded the relationship as “a model of interstate cooperation in the 21st century.”
U.S. and allies debate the intelligence on how quickly Putin will order an invasion of Ukraine — or whether he will at all
After the United States and several allies announced a diplomatic boycott of the Winter Games, Putin publicly supported Beijing, saying Russia was “standing together with China against the politicization of sport and demonstrative boycotts.” The issue hits close to home for Russia because it was the target of a U.S.-led boycott for the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
China and Russia are divided on many issues, including some territorial claims, and their alliance remains informal. Gabuev said China does not recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea, while Russia does not recognize China’s “nine-dash line” asserting its claims in the South China Sea.
“There absolutely is rationalism,” Maslov said. “It is very important to note that neither Russia makes concessions in its national interests, nor does China.”
In the face of the common threat of U.S. pressure, however, Sino-Russian trade has grown. Russia has vast natural resources and a strong software industry, while China excels in technological hardware and manufacturing. Steady trade with China may also shield Russia from the worst effects of sanctions.
The Trump administration had forbidden the sale of U.S. technology to Huawei and other Chinese tech companies, accusing them of posing national security threats, while slapping similar restrictions on Russian companies for alleged cyberattacks. Beijing and Moscow dispute the allegations.
The sanctions prompted Huawei’s founder, Ren Zhengfei, to declare a push to hire more engineers in Russia. Moscow welcomed the move, seeing partnerships with cash-rich Chinese technology companies as a way to advance its own high-tech industry.
Ties have also strengthened in other areas, such as in defense, cybersecurity and counterterrorism.
“They don’t have a formal military agreement, so they have not created a formal military alliance, but the countries de facto act already as this military union,” Maslov said. “We see joint exercises being conducted and even the participation of third countries.”
The U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence said in its annual threat assessment report last year that it was monitoring the increased military cooperation between China and Russia.
The growing alliance has echoes of the 1950s, when the Soviet Union and China aligned against the West in the Cold War. In a massive technology-transfer program, the Soviets helped China set up 156 major industrial enterprises, with 11,000 specialists sent from 1954 to 1958, said Joseph Torigian, a historian at American University in Washington.
“The most common slogan that we saw in the Chinese press was ‘The Soviet Union of today is our tomorrow,’ ” Torigian said.
That period of Sino-Russian friendship ended in the early 1960s, amid differences over how stridently to confront the United States. But after the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Sino-Russian relations warmed again, with the two countries pledging in 1996 to build an “equal and reliable partnership.”
Beijing-Moscow ties have further deepened in recent years as the two faced sanctions and other similar challenges from the West.
“If we look at who are China’s allies, meaning not only in its military power but in its political ideas, we will see that only Russia is its unequivocal ally,” Maslov said.
Ilyushina reported from Moscow.