Will China Be Russia’s Lifeline?

After Russia began its attack on Ukraine, different World Powers such as the US or the EU condemned the attack, but not China. Beijing has rejected calling Moscow’s move an invasion and advocated for “all sides to exercise restraint to prevent the situation from getting out of control”, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said.

Senior diplomat Wang Yi, also China’s foreign minister, has spoken with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov and the ministry has stated that the Ukraine issue had a “complex” history and reiterated that Beijing understands Moscow’s “legitimate concerns” on security.

At the time of this writing, the second day of the war, at least 137 people have been killed in Ukraine, including civilians, says Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and about 100,000 Ukrainians have been displaced, with thousands fleeing to neighboring European states, the UN’s refugee agency reports.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has asked Russian President Vladimir Putin to negotiate with Ukraine. “China is consistent in the fundamental position on respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries and abiding by the purposes and principles of the U.N. Charter,” Xi has told Putin, the Chinese state broadcaster CCTV describes.

Russia and China have long had a good relationship and, as a matter of fact, the gruesome attack on Ukraine has come three weeks after Putin met with Xi Jinping in the run-up to the Beijing Winter Olympics that ended on Sunday. Both leaders announced a strategic partnership aimed at countering U.S. influence and said they would have “no forbidden areas of cooperation”.

For China, the West, especially the US, is the one to blame for the War. Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua called on Europe to reflect on how it can better protect its peace and accused some countries of “following the U.S. in fanning the flame.”

Li Xin, director of the Institute of European and Asian Studies at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said the West forced Russia to act with NATO’s expansion and the deployment of a missile defense system.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has not directly blamed the NATO expansion or the U.S. In this regard, he said on the call with Putin that “it is necessary to abandon the Cold War mentality, attach importance to and respect the legitimate security concerns of all countries, and form a balanced, effective and sustainable European security mechanism through negotiations.”

Chinese cooperation on the line

Although the country has not given public support for Russia’s attack, China is expected to back Moscow diplomatically and economically. China has already approved imports of Russian wheat and made multibillion-dollar purchases of Russian gas in what some analysts describe as a lifeline to Putin.

Yesterday, Chinese customs authorities announced the lifting of import restrictions on Russian wheat, which makes up more than one-quarter of the global supply. Whilst the trade deal was sealed in early February, the timing of the announcement has been seen as a deliberate attempt to undermine efforts to hold Moscow accountable.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has described the move as “simply unacceptable”, accusing Beijing of throwing a “lifeline to Russia in the middle of a period when they are invading another country”.

China could also increase its share of energy imports easing any economic pain of Russia. Back in February, Russia sealed a 30-year contract to supply gas to China through a new pipeline, part of a growing energy partnership between the countries.

These Chinese moves can decrease the impact of the Western sanctions on Moscow and mitigate its economic damage. The US, the United Kingdom, the European Union, and Japan have presented some sanctions targeting a range of individuals and entities, including Russian state banks, the national airline, and elites believed to be close to Putin. However, they do not target Moscow’s lucrative energy sector or the country’s access to the SWIFT payments system.

Sanctions aiming at these two areas would really imply severe costs on Moscow and major collateral damages in the form of skyrocketing oil and gas prices for Europe because it is highly dependent on Russian natural gas.

As the geopolitical scene is changing, in the upcoming days and months China will most likely support and work with Russia to push forward a narrative that undermines the model of Western democracy, even though Beijing has a particular stance of non-interference in international relations.

Some analysts go even so far to say that Russia’s attack on Ukraine could embolden China over Taiwan, a democratically governed island that Beijing says is part of China and has vowed to reclaim by force if necessary.

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