Chinese double talk in Ukraine becomes unsustainable

The result was an exercise in cognitive dissonance, with a narrative that accepts Moscow’s security concerns, blames the West for creating the problem, refuses to refer to ‘war’ or ‘invasion’ and laments unprecedented punishment – all key Russian talking points – but also asserts Ukraine’s sovereignty and tries to stay out of the economic line of fire. He called on “both parties” to defuse. There was no direct condemnation of the Russian invasion.

This stance, perhaps best described as pro-Russian neutrality, served Beijing well in 2014, after Putin annexed Crimea. But it shows signs of strain in 2022, as Kremlin aggression escalates to dramatic levels, even catching Chinese citizens in Ukraine in the crossfire. Meanwhile, the economic consequences are multiplying at high speed, leaving Russia increasingly cut off from the global financial system. Chinese officials – students attentive to the collapse of the Soviet Union – are acutely aware of Russia’s ability to self-destruct financially and are unwilling to see their place in the global economy torpedoed by a political partner who has chosen to become an international pariah.

There were hints of disapproval. Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin, when asked about friendship with Russia on Monday, displayed impressive rhetorical gymnastics, but was quick to mention that the two were strategic partners, not allies. On Tuesday, for the first time since the invasion, Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke with his Ukrainian counterpart, expressing concern over “civilian damage”.

Igor Denisov, a senior fellow at MGIMO University’s Institute of International Studies in Moscow, says the call was not a major change, but rather a demonstration of Beijing’s supposedly constructive role in the crisis and an effort to help its citizens caught in Ukraine. This is no small feat given that China, unlike many other countries, did not initially advise evacuation, but instead pushed back against American warnings of an imminent invasion.

But Denisov also points out that the more substantial and consolidated the West’s position, the less space China will have to support Moscow, for fear of secondary sanctions.

And there is plenty of evidence that room for maneuver is rapidly shrinking as punitive measures pile up.

First, geopolitics. China may disagree with American definitions of democracy and related concepts, and align itself with Putin’s views on multipolarity, but it sees itself as a major player in the global economic and political order, not like a stranger. In a speech Monday on the anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, the Foreign Secretary called for respect for “fundamental norms of international relations”, preached the “purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations” and called for improved ties. “Since the door of China-US relations was opened, it should not be closed,” Wang said. “Since the world emerged from the Cold War, it should not see the fall of another Iron Curtain.” Comments from the official journals echoed this sentiment. These are not the words of a regime about to side with Putin against the world.

Money speaks even louder. China has exported more to Russia as trade ties have strengthened over the past decade, and bought more hydrocarbons and other natural resources from its northern neighbor – it’s the glue of the relationship, as seen with the gas to be supplied via a new pipeline from the Russian Far East, agreed last month. All this has accelerated lately, and now Beijing is stockpiling all raw materials.

But the bottom line is that Russia remains a small export market for China: 2% of shipments, compared to 17% for the United States. In imports, meanwhile, China has worked for years to diversify energy supply, so although Russia is a major supplier, Beijing is not dependent on a single source of oil and gas – not, less, of how it needs the West for access to technology and the dollar system. The inflationary impact of Russian adventurism, meanwhile, is already hurting China. This will be a point for Western diplomats, hoping to dissuade China from mitigating the impact of sanctions, to highlight.

Yes, Russia’s demand for alternatives to the dollar and the SWIFT financial messaging system will advance alternative systems, and China has sought for years to promote the yuan as a global currency. But a transformation is not for soon.

China will continue its uncomfortable balancing act for the time being. It will use its political banks, which are less sensitive than commercial lenders, to provide support, especially for expensive projects. But that will stop short of encouraging public and private entities fearful of both entanglement in sanctions and increased investment risk – they haven’t been keen investors to date anyway. Beijing will continue to call for an end to the violence and say it understands Moscow’s concerns, but will also take advantage of a friend in need by pressing Russia for attractive terms on gas or wheat sales. Many officials in Beijing no doubt see the opportunity to benefit politically from a situation that has left the United States bogged down in Europe, unable to focus on Asia.

But the longer the unbridled violence drags on, the harsher the sanctions, and the greater the economic risk to Beijing, the harder it will be to sit on the fence.

More from Bloomberg Opinion:

• Was Xi Jinping played by Putin in Ukraine? : Matthew Brooker

• Putin’s Ukrainian bet jeopardizes Xi’s friendship: Clara F. Marques

• Two nuclear nightmares of Putin to haunt us: Andreas Kluth

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Clara Ferreira Marques is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist and editorial board member covering commodities and environmental, social and governance issues. Previously, she was Associate Editor for Reuters Breakingviews, and Editor and Correspondent for Reuters in Singapore, India, UK, Italy and Russia.

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