Tightening embrace

Published May 27, 2024
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.
The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

WITH election politics dictating current US foreign policy moves, Washington’s actions are driving China and Russia much closer in a strengthened strategic partnership. The unintended consequences of American policies were laid bare by the outcome of the recent meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing.

This was Putin’s first overseas visit after he secured a fifth term as president. It took place against the backdrop of tough US warnings to China not to support Russia’s war effort in Ukraine, where Russian forces are reported to be advancing in an offensive in the northeast. Washington imposed sanctions earlier this month on several Chinese companies for allegedly supplying Russia with components for military use. This happened immediately after Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Beijing, where he raised US concerns about China’s military dealings with Russia. This met with a sharp response from Chinese officials, who dismissed US accusations as “groundless”. Foreign Minister Wang Yi shot back, saying “China is neither the creator of the Ukraine crisis nor a party to it”.

Subsequently, the Biden administration significantly raised tariffs on Chinese imports including electric vehicles, computer chips and medical products in a bid to woo blue-collar voters in America’s swing states, where the president is trailing his rival, Donald Trump. This added to a growing stream of US trade restrictions, which Beijing sees as aimed at containing China and thwarting its economic progress. Predictably, the latest curbs provoked a furious response from Chinese officials.

The wide-ranging joint statement issued during Putin’s visit directed strong words at the US. It accused Washington of following a policy of “dual containment” towards China and Russia and engaging in “hegemonic behaviour.” “The United States,” it said “still thinks in terms of the Cold War and is guided by the logic of bloc confrontation putting the security of ‘narrow groups’ above regional security and stability, which creates a security threat for all countries in the region.” The statement criticised America’s Indo-Pacific strategy and also denounced US missile deployments around the world that “pose a direct security threat to China and Russia”. Both pledged to counter America’s “destructive and hostile course” that they cast as undermining global peace and stability.

China and Russia have a common interest to resist US pressure but ties have limits.

The lengthy, comprehensive statement also listed the steps the two countries planned to take to solidify military ties and scale up economic relations while identifying other areas of cooperation for a “new era of partnership”. Both restated support for the other’s core interest. Russia reiterated its recognition of Taiwan as an “inalienable” part of China. China joined the Russian critique of Nato activities in Europe. The statement also expressed their shared view on North Korea. Conspicuous by its absence was any Chinese endorsement of Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine.

In fact, China has adopted a ‘neutral’ position on the Ukraine conflict and offered to be a mediator in the crisis. From the outset, it had misgivings about Russia’s 2022 invasion. It often communicated these to Moscow and occasionally even publicly voiced them in a veiled manner. In the meeting between Xi and Putin on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in 2022, the Chinese leader conveyed his reservations over escalation of the Ukraine crisis. Putin later acknowledged that “concerns and questions” were raised by the Chinese president. China’s repeated calls for a ceasefire and negotiations for a political solution reflects its strong preference for a speedy conclusion to the war. Last year, it also offered a 12-point plan for a political settlement of the Ukraine crisis.

But hostile US actions and its trade and tech war with China have only aligned Beijing more closely with Russia and relegated differences with Moscow on Ukraine and other issues to the background. To be sure, China-Russia interests do not converge on many issues especially as China, as a rising global power, has nothing to gain by upending or destabilising the international system, while Russia has few compunctions to act responsibly. Moreover, they confront different challenges and have different stakes in global stability.

US threats of sanctions against Chinese banks and companies engaged in transactions that can aid Russia’s military machine have apparently made Beijing somewhat cautious. Nevertheless, Beijing has responded strongly to US allegations that it is supporting Putin’s war by supplying critical weapon components. It has countered these charges by insisting it is not supplying lethal arms and it “prudently handles the export of dual-use items in accordance with laws and regulations”. Mounting US pressure on this count has led Beijing to rebuff Washington by strengthening its military relations with Russia. Their deepening strategic cooperation has in turn perturbed Western nations.

Uneasy China may be with Putin’s Ukraine adventure, but what the war has done is to significantly deepen its economic ties with Russia and tied the economies of the two countries more closely. For Russia, facing Western economic sanctions, growing economic relations with China have enabled it to mitigate the impact of Western financial and trade curbs. In 2023, two-way trade between them reached a record high of $240 billion. The bulk of this trade is conducted in rubles and renminbi.

Last year, Russia also became China’s top source of oil supply, overtaking Saudi Arabia, providing discounted, cheaper crude. China is Russia’s biggest trading partner, exporting a range of products from cars and machinery to electronics.

Both countries face pressure and sanctions — on different grounds — from the US in an increasingly coercive and punitive approach, even if Western actions against Russia are of a different order. This has created a greater incentive and common interest for China and Russia to join forces to resist US pressure. While there will be limits to the Sino-Russian relationship over time because the interests of the two countries don’t converge on many counts, for now, US policies have ensured they will maintain a close alignment to counter Washington’s pressure.

The writer is a former ambassador to the US, UK and UN.

Published in Dawn, May 27th, 2024

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