Global media attention is currently fixated on Russia’s military buildup along Ukraine’s border. But unlike Europe’s past military conflicts, for the first time, China is playing its part out in the open.
The military escalation in Ukraine has brought the old Sino-Soviet alliance – and its eventual split – into attention. Once, the alliance between the “Chinese Tiger and Russian Bear” was considered a bulwark against the US and its European allies during the Cold War. Mao Zedong’s frustration with Joseph Stalin’s heavy handed-style – and other reasons – eventually led to military conflict near Zhenbao Island on the Ussuri River in 1969.
But that’s the past now. Beijing and Moscow have found ways to work together over the years.
Time for Taiwan, say Chinese social media users
The Chinese State media’s initial response to Russia’s military buildup at the border was to call it a “military exercise” and blame the US for waging “public opinion war”. But the interest of the Chinese public in the developments in Ukraine has grown over the past weeks.
The hashtag “Ukraine Russia” became a major trend on 28 January, and has been viewed over 160 million times so far. “Russia-Ukraine crisis: threat or bluffing?” was the eighth search trend on Baidu. Videos of Russian military equipment being transported to the Ukraine border caught the attention of Chinese social media users.
Some Chinese social media users have suggested that Beijing will not lose the opportunity to unite Taiwan with the mainland if the tensions escalate in Ukraine.
“Crimea has returned to Russia, and Ukraine will be coming soon. What about Taiwan Province?!” asked Weibo user.
“If Russia, Europe and the US break out in a full-scale war in Ukraine, and the two sides cannot retreat from each other, this should be the best time to liberate Taiwan. At most, ten days will be enough. This is a good time,” said another Weibo user.
China stands by Russia
In December 2021, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to accelerate setting up a financial system that can’t be influenced by “third parties”. As the US and other countries threaten to impose sanctions on Russia over Ukraine, the elites in Russia have already reduced their dependence on the US-led financial system – turning to China for access.
Putin’s brinkmanship at the Ukraine border isn’t just because of his risk-taking capacity but also the result of Russia’s increasing economic reliance on China.
Russia-China bilateral trade has beaten previous records in 2021. China’s trade with Russia rose 35.8 per cent year-on-year to $146.87 billion in 2021, according to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce. In 2021, Russia is China’s biggest source of energy imports, accounting for the largest share of electricity imports, the second-largest source for crude oil imports and coal imports.
Putin’s confidence also stems from Russia’s growing foreign exchange reserves, which have steadily risen over the last five years from $390 billion in 2017 to approximately $615 billion in 2021. Though China’s yuan approximately makes up a very small 12.2 per cent of the Russian central bank’s assets in 2019 – it is growing.
Since 2014, the Chinese foreign ministry has encouraged Russia and Ukraine to follow the Minsk-II agreement. The Minsk agreement resulted from mediation by Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Francois Hollande and brought to a halt the Donbas region conflict in September 2014.
China foreign minister Wang Yi has reiterated the support for the Minsk agreement in his recent statements.
Wang Yi stood with Russia during his recent call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Wang Yi has said that China supports Russia’s “reasonable security concerns”.
A comradery due to similar conflicts
Nowadays, Moscow envoys don’t even hesitate to invoke Beijing’s name.
Andrei Kelin, the Russian ambassador to the UK, has said the West is pushing it closer to China in a recent interview with The Times. Though Kelin’s statement may be more of a tactic to elicit a desired outcome in the Ukraine crisis, it clearly shows the Kremlin keeps an eye on Zhongnanhai.
“There is no ceiling on the development of our relationship, no limit,” Zhao Mingwen, former Chinese diplomat and leading Russia expert, told Financial Times.
The eight-year-long conflict, which began over Crimean Peninsula, has made Russia’s willingness to use hard military coercion tactics in the 21st century quite evident. In Putin’s mind, the escalation cost is relatively low, with Beijing on its side.
China currently supports Russia’s military buildup close to Ukraine because it believes that NATO’s expansion close to the Russian border is similar to its concern in the South China Sea. Beijing feels a camaraderie with Moscow because of similarities in the external security situation it faces vis-à-vis Korea and Japan deployment of US forces.
The US has sent a message to Beijing to check for any potential adventurism in the Taiwan Strait as tensions in Ukraine escalate.
On 15 January, the nuclear ballistic missile-capable Ohio class USS Nevada made a rare visit to Guam. “The Ohio-class ballistic-missile submarine’s visit demonstrates our nuclear triad’s capability and flexibility, reinforcing America’s commitment to regional security and stability,” said the official Twitter account of the US Pacific Submarine Command.
For now, Beijing stands firmly with Moscow.
“Russia has repeatedly stated that it has no plans to launch any military action. And Ukraine has made it clear that it does not need a war. Under such circumstances, what is the basis for the country’s concern to insist that there may be a war?” said Zhang Jun, China’s ambassador to the UN.
China’s reaction to the crisis in the coming weeks and the kind of assistance it extends to Russia will test their partnership. The world will learn if Kremlin and Zhongnanhai have overcome their troubled past from years of the Sino-Soviet split.
The author is a columnist and a freelance journalist, currently pursuing an MSc in international politics with focus on China from School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. He was previously a China media journalist at the BBC World Service. He tweets @aadilbrar. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)