Ukraine: Invasion both bolsters and tests Russia’s relationship with China

Stephen MulrenanWednesday 15 June 2022

Image credit: Dilok/Adobe Stock

In May during the G7 mid-year meetings, the German Minister for Foreign Affairs, Annalena Baerbock, accused Russia of leading a ‘grain war’, referring to the implications of its invasion of Ukraine for global food security. She added that Russia was jeopardising the world’s grain supply by blocking Ukrainian ports.

At the time of the meeting, 25 million tonnes of grain were stuck at Ukrainian ports, and G7 leaders discussed how the food might be exported by rail. ‘Russia’s unprovoked and premeditated war of aggression has exacerbated the global economic outlook with sharply rising food, fuel and energy prices,’ said a G7 foreign ministers’ statement. ‘Combined with Russia blocking the exit routes for Ukraine’s grain, the world is now facing a worsening state of food insecurity and malnutrition.’

Western governments have imposed sanctions on Russia in response to the invasion. Though sanctions on states are commonly considered to be a burden, they can also be a blessing, argues Nico Ooijevaar, Vice-Chair of the IBA International Trade and Customs Law Committee and a partner at McMan Ooijevaar in Amsterdam. ‘Sanctions can be a great motivator to develop your own industry,’ he says. ‘Before 2014, Russia was an importer of wheat; now it is the biggest exporter. And the same is true of fertilisers and other agricultural products.’

Trade negotiations between Russia and the West, meanwhile, are currently frozen. Ooijevaar says that Russia has now given up on the West. ‘Russia, which had always considered itself part of Western civilisation, is now aligning itself with China and gradually turning to Asia,’ he says.

Bilateral trade turnover between Moscow and Beijing is expected to reach between $200-$250bn by 2024, with Russia mostly selling Chinese coal, oil, natural gas and agricultural products while China sells Russian machinery, transportation equipment, mobile phones, cars and other consumer products.

But while many Chinese businesses remain interested in expanding their presence in Russia, particularly as many Western companies depart, they face the likelihood of secondary sanctions if they help Russia circumvent Western sanctions. This is just one of many dilemmas facing Beijing.

Though the Chinese economy could certainly use the Russian energy that once went elsewhere, and the idea of giving Russia a trade outlet thereby impeding US ambitions might appeal, attempting to turn Russia into a kind of tributary or vassal state to Beijing does not come without its risks.

Ever since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, China has had to determine where it stands on a full-scale military conflict in Europe involving two post-Soviet countries, one of which is Beijing’s closest strategic partner.

China and Russia do not see eye to eye on every issue, but they have convergent perspectives on some of the most important issues driving their foreign policy

Bonnie S Glaser
Director of the Asia Program, German Marshall Fund

The invasion came shortly after China’s President Xi Jinping and his counterpart Vladimir Putin of Russia met in Beijing to sign a joint statement calling on the West to ‘abandon the ideologised approaches of the Cold War’. The two leaders said the bonds between the two countries had ‘no limits’ and there were ‘no forbidden areas of cooperation’.

Later in February, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi told European officials at the Munich Security Conference that China respects countries’ sovereignty, including Ukraine’s. He added though that Russian security concerns about NATO’s eastward expansion were legitimate, and called for them to be addressed.

Such a position has been described as contradictory by many outside observers, leading some to suggest that China will ultimately have to decide which side it’s on in this conflict. Bonnie S Glaser, Director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund in Washington, DC, disagrees. ‘As a country whose elite is steeped in Marxism, China is quite comfortable with contradictions. I don’t think they believe they will have to choose,’ she says.

Despite the fact that there were dissenting voices in China from early on in the Ukraine-Russia conflict, including public articles advocating that Beijing distance itself from Moscow, the Chinese government has if anything doubled down on its position that its relationship with Russia is very important.

‘But it also believes that territorial integrity and sovereignty are key tenets of China’s foreign policy and serve Chinese interests in part, but not solely, because of China’s claims over Taiwan,’ says Glaser. ‘So, there will be times when it emphasises more its relationship with Russia, and times when it states that it stands up for territorial integrity and sovereignty.’

China’s relationship with Russia was once described as a ‘marriage of convenience’, with both countries uncomfortable with the Western definition of the global order. Glaser says this doesn’t tell the whole story today.

‘China and Russia do not see eye to eye on every issue, but they have convergent perspectives on some of the most important issues driving their foreign policy,’ she explains. ‘They both seek to reduce US influence in the world and are both dissatisfied powers with historical grievances. There are issues on which Russia will support China, even though they may not be of vital national interest, and vice versa.’

Ultimately, China’s decision-making around the conflict in Ukraine will be tied very closely with its own interests, says Glaser. She believes that China doesn’t want to have a major deterioration in its relations with the West, particularly the US and Europe, because it still needs access to technology, ‘which it cannot get if it has a truly hostile relationship with the West.’

To that end, China needs to continue to have students trained abroad. And it wants to continue to be able to purchase some Western companies and have Western investment in China, Glaser adds. ‘All of this is essential for Xi Jinping’s ambition to put the country on a path toward national rejuvenation by the middle of the century,’ she says. ‘And he has set a deadline of 2035 to become more of a major innovation powerhouse globally.’