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A wary China keeps its distance from Putin the gambler

The author is emeritus professor in the history of international relations at the University of Cambridge

Just a few weeks before Vladimir Putin launched what he intended as a two-day Blitzkrieg in Ukraine, taking by surprise even some of his inner circle, he met Xi Jinping for a summit in Beijing. It appeared to the world as if the Chinese might have been implicated in what is the foreign policy gamble of Putin’s political career.

Had Putin succeeded, it might not have mattered so much. The fait accompli would have driven a wedge through Nato, sparking recriminations across the Atlantic and on either side of the Rhine. But Putin’s catastrophic failure is embarrassing to Xi. For China, the ferocity of Putin’s revenge and the risk of the slightest association with it have made the crisis decidedly worse.

Look at it from Beijing’s point of view. When all is well, Moscow is undemonstrative; they don’t even ring. But when Russia does something stupid without warning and ends up in trouble, they are immediately on the phone with pleas for help.

No problem arises when core common interests assert themselves against militant Islam in central and south Asia. But most of the time Russia is busy with Germany and the EU, or America and Nato — even when distracted by propping up the Syrian dictatorship, playing deadly games in Libya or searching in frustration for an answer to Turkish expansionism to the south and east.

Yet the fact of the matter is that Russia faces west, but backs on to China. And Beijing does not regard Moscow as anything other than European. So when Russia gets itself into difficulties with the west and starts projecting itself as Eurasian, China can be excused for not leaping into the Russian embrace.

Long before the allegations of atrocities in Ukraine, in October 2020 Russia was fast becoming a pariah for flattening schools and hospitals in Syria in a bid to save face and win a botched war for Bashar al-Assad. Back then Putin suggested an alliance with China “could not be ruled out”. It took some months, but the Chinese defence ministry finally said no thanks. The situation today has hardly improved.

When they met in early February, Putin secured a joint statement from Xi, lauding greater friendship, that added little in substance to what already existed. Nothing was “ruled out” for the relationship, which might sound meaningful to the desperate, though a tad negative. What Xi argued was that since the two are so close, they don’t really need to formalise anything as their relationship is “superior to political and military alliances of the cold war era”. Not having an alliance is thus somehow more meaningful than having one — which is, on reflection, a little deflating even to the optimist.

What has China to gain from becoming entangled in Russia’s relations with the west? In reality, the Chinese have everything to lose. The trade figures spell out the bottom line for both parties. Trade between Russia and China, though rising last year to a record $147bn, is far exceeded by the value of China’s trade with the EU and the US, a combined $1.4tn in 2021.

What has Russia to offer that would offset the potential damage to China’s commercial ties with the west? After all, US president Joe Biden is easing back on his predecessor’s protectionist measures. Even more Russian natural gas and oil on favourable terms, welcome as they may be, are no substitute. And are Russia’s arms exports to China really such a bargain?

There is also Ukraine, whose skills are not to be underestimated. It helped to build China’s first aircraft carrier and enabled the Chinese to reverse engineer the Russian Su-27 fighter. China is Ukraine’s largest trading partner and Kyiv signed up for the Belt and Road Initiative, revitalising old Chinese trade routes. Even while tensions between Ukraine and Russia mounted from 2020, new contracts were agreed between Kyiv and Beijing. But Moscow seems about to complicate China’s relationships with the US and the EU entirely on its own account.

At the war’s outset Beijing appeared close to Moscow, but less than a month later the tone shifted as Washington bore down on it. China’s global television network CGTN began reporting extensive civilian casualties from Russian targeting.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov had his flight to Beijing on March 17 abruptly turned around en route, evidently to avoid public embarrassment at being disappointed by the Chinese. On March 30 he finally made it but nothing positive emerged from the meeting.

Now Sinopec, China’s state-owned energy giant, is freezing an investment and marketing deal with Russia. At this rate, Putin should not count on a return invitation soon. As he raises the stakes at the table, the Chinese cannot get out of the casino fast enough.

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