Accessibility links

Breaking News

China In Eurasia Briefing: How Far Will Beijing Go In Backing Putin? 


Did Chinese President Xi Jinping know about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s plans to invade Ukraine in advance?

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China’s resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia. This is a special edition dedicated to understanding where China fits amid Russia’s war in Ukraine as Beijing looks to navigate the war and preserve its close ties to Moscow.

Keep reading for a breakdown of Beijing’s diplomatic approach, how the war in Ukraine is being discussed in China, if Beijing will (or can) help offset Russia’s hurting economy, and where China stands amid regional fallout from Moscow’s invasion.

I’m RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here’s what I’m following right now.

How Far Will Beijing Go In Backing Putin?

Welcome to the new world order.

It’s been only six days since the Kremlin invaded Ukraine, but long held political assumptions have been upended and the world is already a very different place.

This is especially true for China, which has already adjusted and readjusted its position about Russia’s military moves as it performs an awkward diplomatic dance to avoid criticizing Moscow while not contradicting key pillars of its foreign policy, such as noninterference and the inviolability of borders.

Finding Perspective: I wrote about China’s high-wire act on the eve of the invasion and Beijing has largely held its course since then, although with some notable adjustments.

Chinese officials have tweaked their wording on Russia’s actions but refrained from condemning Moscow, with Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying echoing Russian statements that Ukrainian cities would not be targeted and even questioning whether the Russian invasion should even be termed an "invasion." In the process, Beijing has pulled no punches in blaming the United States for “flaming the flames” of the crisis and pushing Moscow to the brink.

But as Beijing’s rhetorical gymnastics kicked into full gear, some major questions have been raised in the process. In particular, whether Chinese President Xi Jinping knew about Vladimir Putin’s plans in advance and if Russia’s increasingly indiscriminate campaign will cause Beijing to reevaluate its embrace of Moscow?

Yun Sun, a senior fellow at the Stimson Center, argued that it appears that Beijing did not believe Russia would invade Ukraine and may now be feeling played by the Kremlin.

Until the eve of the attack, Chinese state media was still calling U.S. warnings of a Russian invasion disinformation, with officials in Beijing largely seeing Putin’s military buildup as a bluff and negotiating tactic.

According to a report from The New York Times, senior U.S. officials held a series of meetings with their Chinese counterparts and shared intelligence about Russia’s troop buildup around Ukraine and urged the Chinese officials to press Moscow not to invade.

The Chinese officials dismissed the American warnings and said that they did not believe an invasion was coming. U.S. intelligence, according to the report, even revealed that Beijing had shared the information with the Kremlin.

Other signs also point to Beijing not believing an invasion was coming.

Unlike other countries, China did not evacuate its citizens from Ukraine (many of whom are currently stranded in the country or left during wartime). On another front, many of the country’s top experts were publicly dismissing U.S. warnings about war prior to Russia’s February 24 invasion, with Shen Yi, a professor at Shanghai’s Fudan University, ridiculing Washington’s assessment of war in Ukraine and its “poor quality” intelligence in a lengthy video.

However, some readings of events show that Beijing may have been preparing for a crisis and angling to boost Russia’s finances in advance.

Less than a week before the Russian attack, Moscow announced a $20 billion years-long deal to sell coal to China, and just hours before the invasion China lifted export restrictions on Russian wheat despite ongoing concerns about plant diseases.

Why It Matters: Whatever may be the case, it’s clear that the war in Ukraine is a major test for Beijing and Moscow’s new ties, although it is so far looking to be a test that the two countries will pass.

As Jon Yuan Jiang, Chinese-Russian relations analyst at Australia’s Queensland University of Technology, told me, Beijing feels it needs to honor its partnership with Russia -- one that both countries heralded as having “no limits” just a few weeks ago -- and keep Moscow close in the face of “shared Western pressure.”

Jiang says that China has signaled “a subtle diplomatic disapproval of Moscow’s belligerence,” pointing to a February 25 Xi-Putin phone call where Xi noted that "China decides its position based on the merits of the Ukrainian issue itself, and respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries.”

That same day, China abstained at the end of the UN Security Council vote condemning Russia, a sign that Beijing may be uneasy about being too close to Moscow as it faces worldwide condemnation.

As Bonny Lin, the director for the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me, the Beijing-Moscow partnership is by no means unconditional, but Russia has not yet crossed Beijing’s red lines -- wherever they may be drawn.

As the war intensifies and Russian forces inflict more damage on civilians and nonmilitary targets, she says that Beijing will look to distance itself more from Moscow’s campaign and that the threat of escalating the war into a regional conflict could “lead to fundamental questions from Chinese experts about whether Putin is even operating rationally.”

“From a certain perspective, they can [understand] Putin’s logic at the beginning of the war, which was trying to minimize casualties and using [military force] to achieve a political purpose,” Lin said. “But if civilian deaths continue to rise, it becomes a different calculus about whether China would really be willing to be seen as having blood on its hands.”

Read More

● Hal Brands, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, argues in Foreign Affairs that Russia’s war in Ukraine will result in even greater coordination between Beijing and Moscow across Eurasia.

● As Putin and Xi met in Beijing on February 4, I surveyed a group of leading China and Russia experts for their take on the state of the two countries’ relationship and where it might be going. Take a look here and see how it holds up.

Expert Corner: China's Lessons From Russia's War

Readers asked: “What is China learning from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, especially when it comes to Taiwan?”

To find out more, I asked Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, a fellow at National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan and a former adviser to the European Parliament:

“A disruptive Russia has so far served Beijing’s interests, [but now] associating itself closer with an isolated Russia is making China’s balancing game less convenient and more costly. When it comes to its calculations on [a potential invasion of] Taiwan, Beijing must be watching anxiously as a global democratic alliance and the resilience of the Ukrainian people strengthen. Russia’s war against Ukraine is a test for Europe, and a lesson for China.

“The European Union is so far passing the test, but will China learn the lessons [from Ukraine]? Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to a level of European unity that has surprised many Europeans. Shutting EU airspace to Russian planes, agreeing -- for the first time -- to provide lethal arms to Ukraine, and imposing a SWIFT ban on Russia required political will. For decades, Moscow and Beijing have been the greatest beneficiaries of Europeans’ division and lack of political will.

“[But] the tables have turned: The EU is going beyond old taboos [and] also understanding that China’s role in the process will be key to being effective. Offering breathing space to Russia to avoid sanctions would undermine China’s image as a ‘responsible global player’ upholding the principles of noninterference and sovereignty, and challenge its already tense relations with Europe and undermine its long-term geostrategic interests in the process.”

Do you have a question about China’s growing footprint in Eurasia? Send it to me at StandishR@rferl.org or reply directly to this e-mail and I’ll get it answered by leading experts and policymakers.

Three More Stories From Eurasia

1. The View From China

As the world overwhelmingly condemns Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, China's heavily censored and increasingly nationalist Internet has been largely pro-Russia and pro-Putin, with its state-run media largely holding water for Russia’s version of events on the ground.

What It Means: Putin has always received a warm portrayal in Chinese media and online, with commentators calling him “Putin the Great” and “the greatest strategist of this century.”

This has extended to the attack on Ukraine, where commentary on Weibo, the popular Chinese social media platform, has sympathized with Russia as a victim of political aggression from the West and Chinese media echoing untrue claims as the war unfolds.

The war has been one of the leading topics online, with Weibo pages dedicated to developments in Ukraine receiving billions of views, according to What’s On Weibo, a site that monitors trends on the platform.

In general, Beijing’s propagandists and censors have swung into action, seeking to limit reports about the escalating military conflict as well as snuffing out criticism of Russia over the events.

Prior to the invasion, Horizon News, a Chinese outlet, accidentally posted editorial instructions not to “post anything unfavorable to Russia or pro-Western” and to only use hashtags “started by People’s Daily, Xinhua, or CCTV,” the country’s big state news organizations.

It’s difficult to gauge public opinion in China, but it’s clear that Chinese nationalists are in Putin’s corner online, with comments and posts on various social media mocking Ukraine for provoking Russia.

This may have backfired, however, for Chinese nationals still inside Ukraine.

Early into the war, China’s embassy in Kyiv, which did not evacuate its citizens, advised Chinese nationals to display the country’s red flag on vehicles when traveling in order to get protection.

However, after several reports of Chinese citizens facing backlash and threats in Ukraine, China’s ambassador issued a warning that “Chinese nationals in Ukraine should refrain from showing nationality.”

This isn’t to say that there isn’t support or sympathy for Ukrainians in China, but those discussions are facing a higher degree of censorship online.

For instance, an open letter posted on February 26 online by five renowned Chinese historians denounced Russia’s attack on Ukraine and said that China has a duty to publicly criticize Moscow. The post was quickly removed.

2. A Financial Lifeline?

With the ruble in free fall and the Russian economy feeling the weight of unprecedented sanctions from the West, could China provide economic support to Moscow?

What You Need To Know: Beijing has been vocal in its criticism of the West’s use of sanctions against Russia, a long-standing Chinese position against the measures.

Beyond that, China has signed several energy deals in recent years with Russia using the Chinese yuan, leaving them outside the U.S. dollar-based international financial system. Chinese financial institutions have also given out $151 billion worth of loans to Russia between 2000 and 2017.

“China has the means to help boost Russia’s flailing economy,” Charles Dunst, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told me, but as with its diplomatic positions, it remains unclear how far it will go.

One indicator, says Dunst, is how Beijing will navigate Western pressure. Two Chinese state-owned banks restricted some financing to Russia after the invasion, which he says shows not “that Beijing is aligning [economically] with the West, but that officials don’t know what top Chinese leaders want -- so they’re doing what they can while hoping that it doesn’t bring negative attention their way.”

“In this case, they’ve split the difference by restricting U.S. dollar-denominated products while still issuing yuan-denominated letters of credit for some clients,” Dunst said.

As with most matters at the moment, Beijing is threading the needle and waiting opportunistically. Bloomberg reported on March 1 that Chinese companies are expected to scoop up discounted Russian oil if sanctions deter other buyers.

3. Regional Fallout

Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, coupled with its deepening financial woes, could have major implications for the wider neighborhood, especially countries in Central Asia that remain tied to the Russian economy.

The Takeaway: The ruble’s fall from international sanctions has already sounded alarm bells to varying levels across the region and the invasion of its neighbor has been a hit to Russian soft power, which has stood comparatively strong in Central Asia.

It’s unknown what the full economic fallout will be, but Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are likely to see their currencies hit the hardest, with Kazakh officials already pleading for citizens not to panic and withdraw cash en masse.

One big implication will be a decline in Central Asian migrant laborers, millions of whom travel to Russia each year for seasonal employment.

Bradley Jardine, a fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, told me that this damage to Russia’s political and economic reputation could open the door for China to expand its influence.

“Following sanctions in 2014, China’s trade in the region rose substantially and it began selling weapons systems and expanding its security role at the time,” Jardine said.

The lack of opportunities inside Russia could also begin to reorient other long-standing trends in the region.

“Russia’s decline in stature in the world may hit its university sector in a profound way,” Jardine said.

“Some 80,000 Kazakh students and others from across the region study in Russian universities each year, vastly surpassing other popular destinations like the EU at a ratio of almost 20-to-1. It is highly likely that these students will look elsewhere for their education and China will continue to grow as a source of education and technical employment.”

Across The Supercontinent

Mediator? It took five days of war for Beijing to officially touch base with the Ukrainian side, but Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba held a phone call on March 1.

According to the readout, Kuleba urged Wang to help mediate a cease-fire with Russia.

Ripple Effects: My colleagues Muhammad Tahir and Bruce Pannier, who run RFE/RL’s Majlis podcast, took a deep dive into how Russia’s war in Ukraine may affect Central Asia. Listen to the episode here.

Red Flags: My colleague Mila Djurdjevic from RFE/RL’s Balkan Service reports on corruption and transparency questions raised by a Chinese contract to build a multimillion-dollar sewer system in a Serbian city that activists say has become a microcosm of how Belgrade deals with Chinese entities.

Olympic Diplomacy: Xi was eager to push back against a largely Western diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Olympics and did so by using the games as a venue for face-to-face diplomacy, something the Chinese leader hadn’t conducted since the beginning of the pandemic.

Down The River: A new report from Just Finance, an organization that tracks Chinese investments around the world, says that a Chinese-built major thoroughfare in Serbia has bypassed labor laws and brought environmental damage to the local Morava river.

RFE/RL’s Balkan Service has an interview with one of the report’s authors.

Guerrilla Art: Before the end of the games, I spoke with Chinese dissident artist Badiucao about his Olympic-themed art campaign targeting Beijing and the growing global reach of Chinese censorship. Read it here.

One Thing To Watch

While China is drawing lessons from Russia’s attack on Ukraine, so is Taiwan, the self-governing island that Beijing considers to be a province and wants to “reclaim.”

But Taiwanese military planners are taking notes, with the Institute for National Defense and Security Research, a Taiwanese Defense Ministry think tank, saying that Taipei should put a stronger emphasis on training reservists, given Ukraine’s early success in mobilizing and using troops from its Territorial Defense Forces.

That’s all from me for now. Don’t forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.

Until next time,

Reid Standish

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your inbox on Wednesdays twice a month.

  • 16x9 Image

    Reid Standish

    Reid Standish is an RFE/RL correspondent in Prague and author of the China In Eurasia briefing. He focuses on Chinese foreign policy in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has reported extensively about China's Belt and Road Initiative and Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Prior to joining RFE/RL, Reid was an editor at Foreign Policy magazine and its Moscow correspondent. He has also written for The Atlantic and The Washington Post.

About The Newsletter

In recent years, it has become impossible to tell the biggest stories shaping Eurasia without considering China’s resurgent influence in local business, politics, security, and culture.

Subscribe to this dispatch in which correspondent Reid Standish builds on the local reporting from RFE/RL’s journalists across Eurasia to give you unique insights into Beijing’s ambitions and challenges.

The newsletter is sent on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

To subscribe, click here.

XS
SM
MD
LG