Russian President Vladimir Putin’s surprise admission at last week’s summit in Uzbekistan that China had “questions and concerns” about what was happening in Ukraine offered the first clue that Beijing is increasingly worried about the war.
“You’re talking about huge investments either invested by China directly or with China serving as contractors,” said China expert Victor Gao, citing damages to China-invested shipbuilding projects, iron and steel mills, highways and other infrastructure projects.
What China may have thought would be a quickly fought “military exercise” has turned into a devastating war that has damaged tens of billions of dollars of China’s own investments in the country, driven up global energy and food prices that in turn hurts China’s economy, and complicates China’s balancing act of offering some support to Russia, but not too much, to avoid antagonizing the United States and Europe, according to observers.
“China is very much damaged in terms of its extensive investment. This gives China more incentives to promote peace. China wants to see the war wrapped up as soon as possible,” added Gao, a professor at China’s Soochow University and vice president of the Center for China and Globalization.
China’s balancing act
China has rejected Western calls to condemn the invasion and refused to join international sanctions against Moscow.
Putin has relied on Beijing for trade in the face of Western sanctions. Based on Chinese customs data, overall exports from Russia rose by more than 50% from January to August when compared to the same period last year.
During Chinese President Xi Jinping’s meeting last week with Putin at the annual Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit, Xi affirmed that “China is ready to work with Russia in extending strong support to each other on issues concerning their respective core interests,” reported China’s state news agency Xinhua. The report also stated Xi “emphasized that China will work with Russia to deepen practical cooperation in trade, agriculture, connectivity and other areas.”
But China seems to stop short of circumventing sanctions.
“We have not seen the Chinese provide any material support to Mr. Putin for the war in Ukraine. And we haven’t had any indications that they are violating sanctions,” said John Kirby, coordinator for strategic communications at the U.S. National Security Council (NSC), in a September 16th interview with VOA.
The US factor
China cannot afford to distance itself from Russia due to increasing tensions between Beijing and the United States.
“The Russo-China relationship is postulated vis a vis the U.S.-China relationship,” said Oh Ei Sun, senior fellow at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. “If the U.S.-China relationship is getting worse, Russia and China will warm up further. At the moment, the U.S.-China relationship [is] not doing well, so it’s only natural the Russia-China relationship will warm up.”
At the beginning of September, China joined Russia’s military drills in Russia’s far eastern region.
“China’s got choices to make. And as we’ve said many times before, we would clearly prefer that the choice they make is to condemn what Mr. Putin is doing in Ukraine … and make clear these concerns that they apparently have about what he’s doing there,” Kirby said in his VOA interview.
“We’re going to continue to keep the lines of communication open with Beijing, as we must. There are issues of disagreement, clearly, between the United States and China, but there’s also areas where we have said we can, and we should, cooperate on,” said the NSC spokesman.
Reliance on Russia as a geopolitical partner, however, is increasingly presenting a dilemma for Beijing, especially given its stance for peace.
“I don’t think China will go all out to try to make Russia its really close strategic ally,” said Oh. “Except for its military prowess, it’s nothing much to speak of. Its economy is equivalent to one of the more well-to-do provinces in China, perhaps Guangdong. You might as well have India on your side.”
Observers expect China to continue to stay the course, refraining from giving outright support to Russia, while calling for an end to the war
“China is both a friend of Russia as well as a friend with Ukraine. China does have conversations with Russia on one hand and Ukraine on the other hand. … Lots of these things can be done more constructively behind the scenes than in the limelight,” Gao said.
Central Asia opportunity
As Russia’s war against Ukraine continues, China’s influence in Central Asia seems to be growing, as reflected by last week’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Uzbekistan, Xi’s visit to Kazakhstan and deals signed with other Central Asian countries.
“Of course, China all along wanted to build an oil pipeline through Central Asia, but because of Russia’s opposition, the plans could not be carried out,” said Simon Chen, a political science professor at National Taiwan University. “But now, China’s plans are closer to being realized.”
The Central Asian countries link China to the West and are crucial in helping Xi achieve his Belt and Road Initiative — building a modern-day Silk Road to easily transport oil and natural gas to China, as well as send China’s products to Europe and other parts of the world.
“In Central Asia, China will perhaps benefit [from the Ukraine war], but overall, its economy suffers because of inflation in agricultural goods, high wheat and oil prices. To China, the war is not what it wants,” said Chen.
Last week, China, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan signed a deal for a feasibility study to build a long-awaited railroad that would pass through the three countries to Europe, bypassing sanctioned-plagued Russia.
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