India’s Stand Aside, Will China & Russia Continue To Pretend As Global Allies?

While the West focuses on Xi-Putin partnership, bilateral visits reveal that China isn't quite the Russian ally.

5 min read
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At the recently concluded Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan was the focus of intense Western media scrutiny primarily because of the meeting of two anti-western strongmen – Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping. Of the two, the latter was possibly more watched, in a more comfortable, if not stronger position than the former, on his first official trip abroad since the pandemic struck.

Xi clubbed the visit to the SCO summit with two more bilateral visits – the Central Asian states and to neighbouring Kazakhstan, and then Uzbekistan.

While Western analysts are focussed on the partnership between Xi and Putin, who were splitting the world once again into an anti-Western camp, Xi’s bilateral visits revealed that China is not quite the Russian ally that it is portrayed to be.

Cold War II To Ensue? 

Yes, Russia and China did sign a lengthy agreement earlier this year in Beijing to herald a “new era” in the global order and, reiterated that “Friendship between the two States has no limits,” with no area off limits for cooperation.

Robert Daly, the director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, at the Wilson Center, in Washington, said that the statement released by the two “might be looked back on as the beginning of Cold War Two.”

China has not condemned Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine which has now morphed into a full-blown war. China is also the world’s top importer of Russian crude oil, accounting for 15.4% of Russia's total crude oil exports.

Together with India, its imports of Russian oil had jumped by 11 million tons in the second quarter of this year, following Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, translating into $9 billion, leading to Western accusations that this was subsidising the cost of war for Russia.

Putin has relied on Beijing for trade in the face of Western sanctions. Its overall exports from Russia rose by more than 50% from January to August when compared to the same period last year.


Is China Playing Safe?

But China is also simultaneously hedging itself from the unintended consequences of the Ukraine crisis. Though in keeping with the Chinese tradition, there was no public display of any annoyance yet, Russian President Vladimir Putin did acknowledge that he understood that China's Xi Jinping had concerns about the situation in Ukraine.

China’s foremost concerns, analysts point out, is the massive investment it has made in Russia, to the tune of $50 billion, and which it risks losing or incurring huge losses. The same would hold true for the region too.

Next, the Russian Federation is a key lynchpin for Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and transit routes running through Russia’s enormous territory are at a halt. Not wishing to enter into any direct confrontation with the West, Beijing had, therefore, not announced any recognition of Crimea either, after it was annexed by Russia in 2014.a subject or issue over which there is continuing disagreement.

Post-2014 China also cultivated a close relationship with Ukraine, including in defence cooperation. This cooperation too had to be shelved under the western pressure on Ukraine.

Russia and China Stand Divided Over Kazakhstan

However, the most unambiguous revealation occurred when Xi Jinping visited Kazakhstan – his first foreign destination since the pandemic began. Kazakhstan is where Xi Jinping had first unveiled his Belt and Road Initiative. Kazakhstan has been one of the countries within both the Russia-led Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), where protests against Russia’s special military operations in Ukraine have occurred.

Yet, once Russia began what it calls its 'special military operations' in Ukraine, Kazakhstan refused to send its troops there. As one of the few leaders to participate in person at the St. Petersburg Economic and Investment Forum earlier this year, Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev unambiguously announced that he did not recognise the breakaway provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk region and that two key principles in the UN charter -- the territorial integrity of countries and the right of nations to self-determination were at odds with each other.

More recently, after President Putin called for mobilising more Russian troops for Ukraine, Kazakhstan, along with other fellow regional countries like Uzbekistan, have warned its citizens in the Russian Federation from participating in the war.

Kazakhstan: China’s Gambit for Territorial Integrity

The Kazakh readout of Xi’s talks with Kazakh President Tokayev highlighted that Xi “stressed that China supports Kazakhstan’s position on regional and international issues” and went on to state that “No matter how the international situation changes, we will continue our strong support to Kazakhstan in protecting its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, as well as firm support to the reforms you are carrying out to ensure stability and development, and strongly oppose to the interference of any forces in the internal affairs of your country.”

The message to Russia could not be starker, since Tokayev’s reluctance to recognise the breakaway Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk stemmed from fears of any future operations against its own territory by Russia, given the long border the country shares with the Russian Federation, almost 7,644 km in length, and its own sizable ethnic Russian population.

Furthermore, the country had mass popular and spontaneous uprising across the country, which then it reported was infiltrated by terrorists and radicals. And for Xi, territorial integrity assumes equal significance given the recent tensions over Taiwan.

Central Asia Nations Sitting on Fence Over Ukraine Conflict

In another similar message to Moscow that China would act in its own interest in the region despite Moscow’s reservations, Xi went ahead and signed a document of cooperation together with Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan for the China-Kyrgyzstan-Uzbekistan railway project. The project had been mooted almost a decade ago but nothing had come out of it primarily because of Kyrgyz dithering, attributed to a large extent to Russian reservations regarding the project which would undercut Russia’s primacy as the bridge between Central Asia and the world.

The project would allow China and Kyrgyztan access to Iran and to European markets through the Caspian Sea, bypassing Russian territory. Uzbekistan, incidentally, is also one of the countries which has taken a neutral position on the Ukraine conflict, and has refused to recognize the breakaway regions of Ukraine.

China-Russia Don’t See Eye to Eye on Ukraine

More recently, when President Putin called for the partial mobilisation of troops in the face of Ukraine’s sudden offensive to China, Wang Wenbin, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said "We call on the parties concerned to resolve the issue through dialogue and negotiation and find a solution that accommodates all parties’ legitimate security concerns."

And when asked about China’s position regarding Russia’s announcement this week that it intends to hold referendums on annexing at least four regions in Ukraine, including the Donetsk, Luhansk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson areas, Wenbin said Beijing’s stance was "consistent and clear." "We believe that all countries deserve respect for their sovereignty and territorial integrity, that the purposes and principles of the U.N. Charter should be observed, that the legitimate security concerns of any country should be taken seriously."

Thus, while China may put up a show of a united front with Russia, it is equally anxious and eager to see the end of the Ukraine conflict. With Russia now being both economically and militarily, in varying degrees, dependent on China, the latter may slowly be shifting ground, even as its role in the region, in spite of Russia’s reservations, keeps increasing.

(Aditi Bhaduri is a journalist and political analyst. She tweets @aditijan. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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