Accessibility links

Breaking News

China In Eurasia Briefing: Beijing Is Playing The Long Game With Russia's Invasion


People stand by TV screens in Hong Kong broadcasting the news that Russian troops have launched an attack on Ukraine on February 24.

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China's resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

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

Beijing Is Playing The Long Game With Russia's Invasion

The United States has now put Beijing's close relationship with Moscow in the crosshairs -- as I reported here -- by leaking intelligence reports about Russian requests for military equipment from China in a bid to dissuade the Chinese from more strongly backing the Kremlin.

But while these allegations show potential new depths of support for Russia amid its war in Ukraine, they also clearly illustrate whose side Beijing is really on: China's.

Finding Perspective: There's no denying that China's backing of Russian President Vladimir Putin has put Beijing under new pressure.

The leaked information -- which both China and Russia have called "disinformation" -- came the night before an intense, seven-hour meeting in Rome between U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan and Yang Jiechi, China's top foreign-affairs official.

China's unwillingness to criticize Moscow for its war and its decision to support Russia in spreading propaganda and conspiracy theories has also put its relations with Europe at stake. Just a week ago, there was chatter out of Brussels about Beijing helping to bring Moscow to the negotiating table, but that seems to have faded.

All of this adds up to a strategic headache for Xi Jinping's government brought by refusing to ditch Moscow.

But despite frustrations with the Kremlin's war and the collateral damage it has brought (and could still bring), a prevailing view out of Beijing still seems to be that this will likely be short-term pain and that China is still positioned to emerge from the current crisis largely unfrayed in the long term.

Chinese military vehicles move through a field during military exercises in Russia in September 2018.
Chinese military vehicles move through a field during military exercises in Russia in September 2018.

For Chinese policymakers, one of the lessons learned so far appears to be that the West is becoming more united and that Russia will be needed in Beijing's corner, regardless of whether Moscow kicks up mud on China right now.

From such a view, Beijing may be able to strengthen its position and leverage over a weakened Russia and could benefit from a European Union and United States more focused on tackling problems in Eastern Europe than in the Indo-Pacific.

Why It Matters: The increased Western pressure is no doubt worrisome for China, but Beijing currently sees little upside in turning away from Russia.

Now, China's path forward is by no means certain and the scenario outlined above could also boomerang on Beijing, leaving it more isolated and under more pressure internationally than it would have predicted just a month ago.

In the meantime, China is looking to ride out the storm by behaving cautiously while still preserving its close coordination with Russia.

How things play out from the Ukraine war will no doubt be a fateful decision for Xi and for China as a whole, but it looks like Beijing has charted its course.

Read More

● China's state media and vocal officials are increasingly converging with Moscow's distorted coverage of the war -- and even beginning to push conspiracy theories in the process. Read the report here.

● Hu Wei, vice chairman of the Public Policy Research Center of the Counselor's Office of the State Council, warned in an article that has been censored in China that Beijing could be isolated internationally if it doesn't distance itself from Putin.

Projects financed by China, such as the reconstruction of this railway line between Budapest and Belgrade, could suffer.
Projects financed by China, such as the reconstruction of this railway line between Budapest and Belgrade, could suffer.

Expert Corner: The Future Of The BRI In Europe

Readers asked, "Does Russia's invasion of Ukraine derail China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) ambitions with Europe?"

To find out more, I asked Andreea Brinza, vice president of the Romanian Institute for the Study of the Asia-Pacific:

"Overall, the war will negatively affect China-Europe relations, including the future of the BRI in Europe, as European countries are disappointed that China has only engaged in attacking the United States and spreading fake news, without playing any concrete role in ending the fighting.

"China's exports may suffer due to lower consumer purchasing power in the West and especially in Europe. At the same time, the railway routes of the BRI could also be affected by possible bans on products that transit across Russia, or even because some companies might stop deliveries via freight train through Russia. These routes were the most successful side of the BRI in Europe and without them, China will lack a BRI success story in Europe.

"But the war in Ukraine may not only endanger these rail routes, but could also especially affect China's relations with Central and Eastern Europe. This part of Europe, which was quite important for China in the past, as it was seen as a possible gateway to the EU, is now on the verge of a possible NATO conflict with Russia. Thus, the perception that China is aligned with Russia has only proven to these countries that standing firm with the United States and NATO (by banning Huawei and canceling Chinese-backed projects) was the best thing to do. So, it will be increasingly difficult for China to promote projects or investments in this part of the world."

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. Economic Headwinds

China is seeking to avoid taking a hit from sanctions against Russia and has so far been quietly enforcing the U.S.-led measures, former U.S. Treasury official Peter Piatetsky, who is now the CEO of the consultancy Castellum.AI, told me.

What It Means: The United States is China's largest trading partner and Beijing looks to be following the sanctions regime, with Foreign Minister Wang Yi telling his Spanish counterpart, Jose Manuel Albares, on a March 14 phone call that "China is not a party to the crisis, nor does it want the sanctions to affect China."

Piatetsky said that Beijing currently has little to gain from skirting sanctions to help Russia and lots to lose. Although, that doesn't mean that China won't be looking to make some opportunistic moves in the Russian economy.

Alexander Gabuev from the Moscow Carnegie Center told me that "once the Russian economy finds its bottom and it's clear what is permissible and what is not, China is likely to search for more commercial opportunities," particularly in the oil and gas sector.

There are also increasing signs that Beijing is worried about economic blowback brought by the war and sanctions.

The International Monetary Fund warned that China might find it hard to meet its target growth rate of 5.5 percent this year due to fallout from Russia's invasion and the German outlet Der Spiegel reported that the Chinese director-general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization suppressed publication of a report that warns of a grave hunger crisis in the Middle East and Africa as a result of the war in Ukraine.

2. A U-Turn In Budapest?

April 3 is election day in Hungary and the war in Ukraine has helped shake things up in what was already proving to be a decisive vote as the country's opposition faces its best chance in a decade to unseat incumbent Viktor Orban.

What You Need To Know: My colleague Balint Szalai from RFE/RL's Hungarian Service has broken down the opposition's platform, headlined by Peter Marki-Zay -- a conservative small-town mayor who emerged as a unity candidate chosen by a coalition of opposition parties.

The platform promises a 180-degree turn away from Orban's pro-Russian and pro-Chinese foreign policy of recent years.

Marki-Zay has said before that he plans to reevaluate Chinese-funded projects in the country that were green lit under Orban and the opposition's program mentions the contract for the multibillion-dollar Belgrade-Budapest railway as a specific target.

Peter Marki-Zay presents the opposition's governing plans on March 9.
Peter Marki-Zay presents the opposition's governing plans on March 9.

3. China's Bet On The Balkans

Fallout from Russia's invasion of Ukraine will be far and wide and there are signs it is already being felt in Serbia, where Belgrade enjoys close relations with both Moscow and Beijing.

The Takeaway: My colleague Mila Durdevic from RFE/RL Balkan Service reports how China is well-positioned to pick up the slack left in Serbia as the country looks to distance itself from Moscow in the war's aftermath.

Russia is still a cultural, political, and economic force in the Balkan country, but Belgrade has belatedly joined the call for international condemnation of Russia, although Serbia did not join the Western-led sanctions.

"We live in difficult times, in complex times, in times when many partnerships and ties are broken and when we are all under enormous pressure," Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic said at the opening of the Chamber of Chinese Companies in Belgrade on March 3.

With Serbia looking to balance its ties with the EU, it may look increasingly to China, which has already become a source of growing investment in the country that comes with far fewer checks and balances than European cash.

Across The Supercontinent

First China, Now Ukraine: Yilisen Aierken, an ethnic Kazakh from Xinjiang who applied for asylum in Ukraine after fleeing China out of fear that he would be sent to an internment camp, completed a difficult journey from Kyiv to Poland. I wrote about it here.

Back To Afghanistan: The Wall Street Journal reports that dozens of Chinese mining companies have descended on Kabul in recent weeks and that Beijing is negotiating with the Taliban to restart mining, as well as gas and oil exploration, at two sites where projects had been put on hold.

Bouncing Back: Despite bottlenecks at the border and continued stringent Chinese coronavirus regulations, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan's trade with China has returned to pre-pandemic levels, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reports.

Stories From Xinjiang: RFE/RL's Kazakh Service spoke with Kanat Beisekeev, the director of a new documentary focusing on ethnic Kazakhs and Uyghurs who have been caught up in China's vast internment-camp system.

Domino Effect: Sanctions against Moscow will bring severe economic fallout for countries in Central Asia that are dependent on trade and investment from Russia.

RFE/RL's Uzbek Service looks at what Uzbekistan is doing to insulate itself from any coming shocks.

One Thing To Watch

China has ordered 51 million people into lockdown amid the worst COVID surge since early 2020.

Chinese authorities recently announced that they'd be locking down tens of millions of people in the entire northeastern province of Jilin and the southern cities of Shenzhen and Dongguan.

The surge is not only looking to set record case numbers, but it marks a major test for China's "COVID zero" approach and could signal a shift toward Beijing adopting a new strategy to deal with the virus.

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