Russia’s war against Ukraine has not changed Beijing’s goal of strengthening strategic cooperation with Moscow
Russia and China share overlapping strategic interests and perception of threats. Both countries openly declare dissatisfaction with their own status in the international system, speak out against the creation and expansion of Western blocs similar to NATO, and express discontent towards the U.S. global leadership. They both promote a peculiar understanding of democracy and human rights, seek to withstand against ‘colour revolutions’ and minimise the interference of external powers in their areas of influence. The two countries stress that they have reached a new level of cooperation, which is not curtailed by any sensitivities or changing international order.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has become a challenge for Beijing: it has to find a balance between its ‘non-interference policy’, partnership with Russia and the necessity to uphold its image in the West because of its economic interests. Beijing evidently supports Russia in the information and diplomatic domains, amplifies Moscow’s narrative that the war in Ukraine was provoked by NATO’s expansion and disregard for Russia’s security interests in Europe. It speaks out against military support to Ukraine and implementation of sanctions against Russia, abstains during voting or votes against resolutions that condemn Russia’s aggression. China helps to mitigate the impact of the sanctions on Russia: it has increased the import of Russian energy resources; Chinese banks also have integrated Russia’s financial institutions into China’s interbank settlements system. Due to the likely damage to their reputation or risk of secondary sanctions, large Chinese companies do not participate in Russian sanction evasion schemes; however, some small and medium size Chinese companies act as intermediaries for Russia in purchasing sanctioned and dual use goods and technologies.
We assess it is highly likely that China’s top political echelon had been notified that Russia would be resorting to military action against ukraine; however, they could have predicted neither the scale nor the course of the military conflict at the time. It is highly likely that China will continue to support Russia. Beijing assesses that its support so far has not caused China any significant damage but has provided some potential. It gives China opportunities to obtain energy resources under favourable terms, to expand the operations of its companies in Russia, to increase its influence in the regions traditionally claimed by Russia (Central Asia, the Arctic), and use Russia as a partner to counterbalance Western dominance.
It is highly likely that Russia’s defeat in the war against Ukraine is against China’s interests, especially if it causes the regime change in the Kremlin, as this would lead to strategic uncertainty, which Beijing aspires to avoid. In the near and medium term, Chinese–Russian cooperation on security, defence, diplomacy, economics, energy, technology, and intelligence will intensify; however, in the long term these relations will become increasingly unbalanced. Since China and Russia aspire to maintain their strategic autonomy, it is unlikely that the two countries would elevate their cooperation to the status of alliance based on collective defence in the medium term.