Russian invasion of Ukraine during Olympics – Beijing before balancing act

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From: Christiane Kuehl

They will soon meet again in person: Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping at their last video summit in December © Yin Bogu/Imago/Xinhua

China has become involved in diplomacy over the Ukraine crisis. China is closer to Russia than to NATO. But there are limits – a tightrope act is imminent.

Beijing/Munich – Now the time has come. China* has gotten involved in the diplomatic struggle to keep the peace on the Ukrainian border. Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke to his US counterpart Antony Blinken on the phone on Thursday. On Friday, the Kremlin announced that Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping will primarily talk about Eastern Europe and Russia’s negotiations with NATO when they meet on the sidelines of the Olympic opening ceremony. In fact, China likes to stay out of conflicts that are far away. Beijing is currently preparing for the Olympic Games*, which will start in a few days, and at the same time is fighting against the penetration of the omicron variant into the country. But a major power like China cannot stay away forever.

By all accounts, Blinken and Wang both said they wanted tensions to be eased as quickly as possible. But in the interpretation they were by no means on the same line. After the call, China’s foreign ministry released a statement, according to which Wang told Blinken that Russia’s “reasonable security concerns should be taken seriously and resolved.” According to the ministry, the security of a country should not be at the expense of other countries. And regional security cannot be guaranteed by strengthening or even expanding military blocs. What this sentence refers to is obvious: the eastward expansion of NATO, which Russia so hates.

The US has urged Beijing to use its influence in Moscow to push for a diplomatic solution, said Victoria Nuland, undersecretary at the US State Department, at a press conference after the call. “If there is a conflict in Ukraine, it will not be good for China either. Because it can be expected to have a significant impact on the global economy and the energy sector.”

China: Difficult decision

When Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Beijing remained largely neutral. Even then, Beijing did not blame Moscow. But China abstained on a Ukraine resolution in the UN Security Council and has not recognized the annexation of Crimea to this day. But now the world is demanding an answer from Beijing. This leaves China with the choice of either alienating its partner Russia or risking an intensification of the conflict with the West. From China’s point of view, direct support for Ukraine and NATO makes no sense, says Helena Legarda, security expert at the China think tank Merics in Berlin. “At the same time, Beijing is unlikely to fully side with Russia either, as that would not serve China’s interests either.”

International experts rule out that China is in favor of an invasion. Especially since that would make the situation for Beijing even more difficult. “If Russia, purely hypothetically, invades Ukraine* and a Western power interferes militarily, it would be difficult for China to stay completely out of it,” Helena Legarda is convinced. Soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army in Europe are unimaginable for anyone. “But China could offer Moscow more diplomatic support.”

But what if Russia sends its troops to Ukraine during the Olympics? China’s ambassador in Washington pointed to the “time-honored Olympic truce” for the games. This started on Friday. An invasion that casts a shadow over the Winter Games “would not go down well in Beijing,” says Legarda *. “But I can imagine that Putin is considering it.” An invasion of Ukraine during the games “could change the whole relationship with Russia”. It wouldn’t be the first time: in August 2008, the Russian army invaded Georgia while Putin was in Beijing at the opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics. At the time, that surprised many countries – today, Putin is believed to be capable of just about anything.

Russia and China: how close are the ties

But how close is China’s relationship with Russia? “Their relationship started out as a marriage of convenience but has since evolved into something much stronger and more solid. However, I don’t think their relationship is a true alliance. There are limits to what both would do for each other.” The unifying element is the common dislike of both states against a world order dominated by the USA. “Both Moscow and Beijing continue to view constitutional democracies as an obstacle to their geopolitical ambitions – and, more importantly, as a threat to their domestic political regimes,” writes Joe Webster in his Blog on Russian-Chinese Relations*. Putin is increasingly willing to break the rules and challenge the free world directly. “Beijing has acted more cautiously, but it has often – albeit tacitly – supported Putin’s actions.”

Legarda also sees common interests and concerns of the two partners. “But that’s not absolute. They don’t fully trust each other. For example, China is increasing its footprint in the former Russian sphere of influence, for example in Central Asia and in the Arctic*.” Russia views this with suspicion. The balance is also increasingly shifting in China’s favor due to the economic rise of the People’s Republic. This could create tensions in the future.

China and Russia: Growing Economic Relations

So far, however, the growing economic relations have benefited both sides. In May 2014, shortly after the Russian invasion of Crimea, Beijing and Moscow signed the construction of the “Power of Siberia” gas pipeline, which now pumps natural gas to China. This pipeline accelerated “Russia’s economic swing to China,” Webster writes. Between 2014 and 2020, Russian exports increased from around 42 billion US dollars to 57 billion US dollars – partly due to the expansion of oil pipelines on Russia’s Pacific coast. Russia also pumps oil to China.

China needs these Russian raw materials to fuel its economic growth. But Russia is less important as an export market for the People’s Republic: “In 2020, China exported almost as much to Mexico as to Russia. And China’s exports to Russia accounted for just 0.3% of its 2020 gross domestic product in 2020.” Conversely, according to Webster, Russian exports to China accounted for four percent of China’s GDP there.

China’s crucial in future sanctions

The growing interdependencies could also take on a geopolitical dimension in the event of future sanctions against Russia. Since 2014, Chinese banks have largely complied with Western sanctions imposed after the Russian invasion of Crimea and the Donbas region. If these sanctions were tightened further, it would be more difficult for China to implement today, writes Chris Miller, Eurasia Director at the non-partisan think tank Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia in a recently published study. “The decisions Beijing makes here will either undermine the sanctions or increase their impact,” Miller said. This in turn influences how high Russia estimates the economic costs of a possible escalation.

Should China decide to support Russia directly, Miller said it could migrate bilateral trade to other payment systems based on the Chinese currency, the renminbi. Beijing could also grant Russia renminbi loans, which Russia could then use to buy in China again. “Such a move would be costly for China as some of these loans may not be repaid,” Miller said. And that would significantly increase tensions between the US* and China. However, if successful, such renminbi payment systems could later also become attractive for third countries that want to continue trading with Russia. Such a parallel payment system would in turn have consequences for the entire global economy.

Putin in Beijing: demonstration of friendship

But it’s not that far yet. First of all, Putin flies to Beijing for the Olympic opening ceremony on February 4 and demonstrates friendship. According to Webster, Russian plans for a joint maneuver in Belarus indicate that an attack before the end of the games on February 20 is out of the question. According to official announcements, on February 10-20, Russia and Belarus planned exercises on “suppressing and repelling external aggression during a defensive operation”. Putin, meanwhile, has branded boycotts of the games as “politicizing sport” in the spirit of Beijing. It is not known whether he expects anything in return.

China will probably drive on sight and decide depending on the situation. But for the People’s Republic, according to Legarda, the conflict has another dimension – which has nothing to do with Russia. “In the event of a Russian invasion, China would be watching NATO’s and the West’s response very closely. Because it will give Beijing information about a possible Western reaction to a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan,” says the expert. Of course, the two cases are very different. But how the US then reacted is quite revealing for China as to “whether Washington still has an appetite to get involved in a conflict overseas – and to observe the degree of coherence in the West.” From the West’s point of view, that’s one another reason to hope that there will be no attack. (ck) * is an offer from IPPEN.MEDIA.

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