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Ukraine: China and Russia’s Calculated Mutual Support

Ukraine: China and Russia’s Calculated Mutual Support
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy
 François Godement
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - U.S. and Asia

The possibility of a China-Russian alliance is traditionally downplayed. Certainly, the two countries already form a "negative coalition" through their UN vetoes, and share an aversion to color revolutions. They trade extensively - Russian arms and gas, Chinese consumer goods. But there is long-term Russian mistrust and some Chinese contempt for its former "elder brother." China engages its army very sparingly or not at all, whereas Putin projects his military strength from Georgia to Donbass, Syria and Kazakhstan. 

But the situation is evolving, mainly due to the United States implementing Obama’s promise to shift in its forces towards East Asia. The US has the support of regional allies and partners who worry over a potential Chinese aggression. Just as Western sanctions over Crimea have made Putin's Russia more dependent on Beijing, Xi Jinping's China is concerned with the risks of increasing diplomatic isolation. Turning their negative coalition with Russia into a counter-alliance, or even presenting the United States and its allies with the risk of two simultaneous conflicts - in Ukraine and Taiwan - is tempting to Beijing. For the first time in a long while, China may need Russia as much as Russia needs China, which is certainly something Putin has carefully taken note of.

After massing troops on the Ukrainian border, Russia presented its demands for "security guarantees" to the United States in mid-December. In the same week, Putin held a virtual meeting with Xi. Each side highlighted the other's support in their respective reports of the meeting. The Chinese statement noted that "Russia will be the strongest defender of China's position on Taiwan-related issues" and that it "opposes any ‘small group’ in the Asia-Pacific region" - referring to both the Australia-United Kingdom-United States AUKUS alliance and the "Indo-Pacific Quad" (United States, India, Australia, Japan). According to the Russian spokesperson, "President Xi has offered to support President Putin in his efforts to secure legally binding security guarantees from the West.

Of course, these expressions of commitment towards each other's security interests would have been even more compelling had they been delivered in a joint communiqué. Deciphering this type of language is always revealing. In the Chinese account, Xi praises Putin for resisting incitements to "sow discord" between Beijing and Moscow. This also sounds like a warning and shows that a Washington-Moscow-Beijing strategic triangle would not be to China's liking. Behind the shimmer of words, we know that China often remains dumbfounded by Russia’s military initiatives. It is also clear that Mr. Putin's defiant posturing reflects the frustration of being only a secondary consideration to the two 21st century superpowers - the United States and China.

The mismatch between Moscow and Beijing’s strategic calendars is one of the keys to their relationship, as well as to the current crisis in Europe. 

Ultimately, the mismatch between Moscow and Beijing’s strategic calendars is one of the keys to their relationship, as well as to the current crisis in Europe. China will not immediately move from strangulation to a direct attack on Taiwan: the risks are immense, as the island's strategic value to the United States and its allies is far greater than that of Kyiv. China will therefore wait and continue to upgrade its forces, aiming for a degree of strategic parity that would deter the United States from an escalation in a conventional conflict.

On the other hand, Putin’s use of military options in the European theater is already part of his modus operandi (Georgia, Crimea, Donbas). He does not want to end his career with a frozen conflict but rather by putting Russia back at the center of the strategic game. Xi and his country have time on their side, whereas a sense of urgency animates the Russian president.

Putin's game is therefore to rely on an agreement with China - a de facto alliance, given their bilateral military cooperation - at an opportune moment, before Russia’s comprehensive power is further downgraded. This may seem like a huge risk: has he not overestimated his position, setting the bar so high that it is difficult to see any possible outcome other than conflict? 

Xi also has a stake in rising tensions in Europe, with Russian actions potentially distracting Washington from its containment strategy against China. Eventually, Russia might strengthen its military posture, and thus be a more valuable ally to China - and it would also become even more isolated, and therefore more dependent on it. And if the West shows weakness in Europe, the US guarantees regarding East Asia will accordingly lose some credibility. 

Eventually, Russia might strengthen its military posture, and thus be a more valuable ally to China.

At the moment, the strategic loser in this bidding war is Europe, with Ukraine appearing to be the first crisis of a "new Cold War." This crisis is occurring not in Asia, where the future is said to belong, but on the Old Continent - perhaps the weakest link in the new configuration. Yet Europe still has significant cards to play. With Moscow, decisions regarding sanctions and trade relations are more in the hands of the EU than in those of the United States and NATO. With Beijing, the importance of the European market and our new defensive trade tools should encourage dialogue. At the moment, though, neither Moscow nor Beijing seem to care. For Putin, the EU does not fulfill his criteria for strategic relevance. For Xi, the Europeans are not significant players in Asia. This is why safeguarding the European future requires playing a more important role in managing this new Cold War and, as a priority, a renewed strategic relationship with America. No Russian conjunction with China can have the strength or certainty of a solid transatlantic alliance. For this to happen, America must continue to defend European security interests without wavering, and the Europeans should view China through a strategic and not merely economic lens. 


Copyright: Mikhail METZEL / SPUTNIK / AFP

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