Mar 13, 2022

Will the Ukraine Conflict Bring Russia and China Closer?

American sanctions test Russia and China’s relationship. Will China help their newly-exiled ally and risk sanctions, or will they play it safe?
Will the Ukraine Conflict Bring Russia and China Closer?

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Before Ukrainian conflict

Prior to the Ukrainian conflict, China and Russia grew closer as seen by their growing trade and partnerships. China’s leader Xi Jinping even asked Putin to delay the Ukraine war until after the Beijing Olympics.

Growing trade: Russia and China’s economies are highly compatible: Russia is mineral-rich with high energy reserves, while China can handle mineral processing in mass.

  • Over the years, China-Russia trade has rapidly grown. In 2021, the trade between the two eastern countries hit an estimated $140 billion.
  • A highway bridge connecting the two countries, the first of its kind, is opening soon. The bridge is expected to increase Russia-China trade to $200 billion.

China’s silk road: China’s foreign policy revolves around the Silk Road Economic Belt, a massive infrastructure project to connect all of Asia, Europe, and Africa through cross-continental highways, under China.

  • Russia’s territory plays a crucial role in China’s initiative. It was initially unclear whether Moscow would sign off on the project, but it eventually agreed in 2019.

Thinking geopolitically: China’s economy is ten times larger than Russia’s, and Russia would ultimately be the more vulnerable partner in a China-Russia alliance. Because of this, some suggest Russia would be better off joining the West against China.

During Ukrainian conflict

How China Could Help Russia

  • Ramping up purchases of Russian oil and wheat
  • Broadening existing currency swap arrangements
  • Extending loans and credit to Russian companies
  • Providing Russian banks with their own financial banking system to counter the SWIFT ban.
  • Providing Russia with military equipment

Possible repercussions for helping: The U.S. warned that Chinese companies that defy American sanctions on Russia would be cut off. China could also face similar sanctions.

  • Some argue that China’s commercial ties with the West are more important than those with Russia. Monetarily, this is correct.

Their only actions so far:

  • China abstained from the United Nations vote to condemn Russia for the invasion.
  • China relaxed restrictions on importing Russian wheat.
  • China amplified Russia’s theory of dangerous Ukrainian biolabs.
  • China doubled the permitted range of trading between its currency and Russia’s, fostering more trade. Some analysts called this only symbolic.
  • China’s bank regulator chief opposed the sanctions.

None of China’s actions are pivotal. They neither counter the West’s sanctions nor help Russia evade them, but are significant in showing that they haven't taken an anti-Russia stance.

Russia’s requests: According to US officials, Russia is asking China for military equipment to support its offensive in Ukraine. China’s embassy spokesperson in Washington said he was unaware of any suggestions that China would help Russia.

Regarding Taiwan: Many have speculated how the Ukrainian conflict affects China’s attitude towards Taiwan. Some say that the lack of US involvement emboldens China to attack Taiwan. Others say the sanctions deter China.

  • It seems more realistic that China would want to avoid the sanctions, as it is currently doing by not explicitly helping Russia.
  • The US has also made it clear that if China was to move on to Taiwan, the US would act differently than it is doing in Ukraine–meaning a shooting war is possible. Because of this, Ukraine-Russia isn't really comparable to China-Taiwan.
  • There is no rush. While there were many reasons for Russia to move on Ukraine this year, China has been and will probably continue to play the long game.

China’s been able to support its alliance with Russia without undermining the West’s sanctions. So far, China is playing it safe, and it looks like it will continue to do so in the near future.

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