Invasion of Ukraine puts Chinese relationship with Russia under pressure
Political scientists say China is in a tough spot as both a Russian ally and a global exporter
U.S. President Joe Biden refused to comment Thursday on whether he was urging China to join the international community in condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
The two countries — after all — have recently emerged as fast friends.
Last month, they announced a "no limits" partnership, essentially a non-aggression pact denouncing external interference in their respective territorial areas of interest.
They also inked a 30-year gas pipeline deal — one that saw China extract huge concessions from Russia in exchange for cash President Vladimir Putin will need to weather Ukrainian-related sanctions.
University of B.C. political science professor Yves Tiberghien says China's approach to Russia is tactical. There's no love lost between the two nations — and he says internal polling shows a mutual distrust between their citizens.
He wonders if the mercenary nature of the relationship might mean there's at least some room for the West to exert influence on China.
"They're going to have this bottom-line mentality where they think why would we hurt the only tactical alliance we have when we will gain nothing," he said.
"So I wonder from a very rational perspective whether there's some space there to incentivize China to realize that 'You're still a stakeholder in this global economy, in the global system, and despite all the problems we have with you — Russia just broke everything, broke all the rules, so you don't want to be with them.'"
An 'extremely awkward moment'
China has refused to condemn Russia's attack on Ukraine, instead blaming the United States and its allies for inflaming a tense situation.
Experts agree the Asian superpower occupies a pivotal role in the crisis, as both an ally to Russia and the world's leading exporter of consumer goods — deeply dependent on globalization to fuel its economy.
Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law Michael Byers says he saw firsthand the proof of China's importance to Russia while visiting western Siberia in 2015.
He says he noticed a vast increase in freight cars pouring across the border bound for China on the Trans-Siberian railway — pointing to Russia's restructuring of its economy to cope with the impact of sanctions imposed in 2014 in response to the annexation of Crimea.
"It was non-stop freight trains, just the volume of natural resources that were being shipped to China," Byers said.
"I'd been to Novosibirsk before 2014, so I actually saw a marked change."
At the same time, Byers says anyone looking across Vancouver's English Bay at the lineup of cargo ships waiting to unload Chinese products in North America can see China's future is also entwined with Western interests.
"In the short term, China still needs access to Western markets," Byers said. "China is much more integrated with the West economically than Russia is."
Carleton political science professor Jeremy Paltiel says it's an "extremely awkward moment" for China.
He says China has staked its reputation and position on the United Nations Security Council to the UN principle of territorial integrity, which prohibits states from using force to impose their will over the independence of another state.
"And China to this day maintains that it supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine," Paltiel said.
"They're tying themselves up in knots in order not to criticize Russia at the same time that they realize the seriousness of the situation."
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'China gets stronger the longer it waits'
Observers draw an obvious parallel between Russia's invasion of Ukraine and a possible future invasion of Taiwan by China.
But Tiberghien, Byers and Paltiel all agree it's unlikely China would see Putin's actions as a green light to make a move on Taiwan — which China claims as part of its territory.
Byers says there are differences between the two situations — the most important of which is that the U.S. has a defence commitment to Taiwan.
He says China is more likely to play the "long game," watching to see if the fight over Ukraine weakens the West.
"It's a bigger step, it's a more dangerous step, and I don't see China preparing to take that step right now," Byers said.
"China gets stronger the longer it waits, and it's looking at the United States, which is a country in turmoil."
Tiberghien says he's been monitoring social media out of China to get an idea of the reaction to the invasion of Ukraine. He says some voices — most likely backed by officials — are warning Taiwan not to rely on the U.S.
"But many mainstream voices and middle-class Chinese are shocked by the reality of war in Ukraine and are writing that war is a crime," Tiberghien said.
"They believe that China is rising, but rising in a world of economic interdependence. China's economic strength is completely connected to globalization."
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'Egg on his face'
China has invested heavily in the Belt and Road initiative, a grand plan to connect Europe, Asia and Africa by investing billions in construction projects in more than 60 countries.
Paltiel says the invasion of Ukraine threatens the physical structure of the plan, asking "what kind of connectivity is going to cross Eurasia right now?"
But he also says China's post-colonial partners like Kenya, which strongly condemned Putin's actions, will be watching to see how China greets Russia's attempts to reestablish the kind of old world order which devastated Africa.
Paltiel says there's only one man who knows what China's response to Putin's actions will be and that's Chinese President Xi Jinping — who, like his Russian counterpart, has made himself the operating mind of his country.
"In the end, if they do condemn it, then Xi Jinping ends up with egg on his face, because he went out of his way to praise Putin just a few days ago," Paltiel said.
"And on the other hand, if they fail to condemn this altogether, then their friends in the post-colonial world will wonder about China's stance on sovereignty. It's really difficult."