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Why China Won't Rescue Russia's Flailing Economy

A TV screen shows news about Russia's invasion of Ukraine at a shopping mall in Hangzhou, in eastern China, on February 25.
A TV screen shows news about Russia's invasion of Ukraine at a shopping mall in Hangzhou, in eastern China, on February 25.

With Russia's economy in freefall as it feels the weight of a wave of unprecedented sanctions from the West, could China provide economic support to Moscow?

So far, the answer appears to be "no."

Although Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, have built strong ties in recent years in the face of Western pressure and Beijing has criticized the West's use of sanctions against Russia, China has not stepped in to help Moscow.

The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a Chinese-led development bank, suspended all business with Russia and Belarus on March 3, a possible sign of the limits to Beijing and Moscow's relationship. Similarly, the Shanghai-based New Development Bank also suspended business with Russia the same day.

Economic ties between the countries, however, have strengthened in recent years, with bilateral trade soaring to turn China into Russia's largest trading partner as the countries sought to deal more in Chinese yuan, which is outside the U.S.-dollar financial system.

According to a Reuters report, Russian firms are also rushing to open Chinese bank accounts in hopes of circumventing the worst economic pain brought by sanctions, while the Financial Times reported on March 4 that investors are increasingly betting on Beijing boosting trade with Russia to soften the blow from sanctions.

But could Beijing extend a financial lifeline to Moscow -- and more crucially, would it be willing to?

To find out more, RFE/RL spoke with former U.S. Treasury official Peter Piatetsky, who is now the CEO of the consultancy Castellum.AI.

RFE/RL: What role could China play in supporting Russia's economy? We have seen some headlines about oil and wheat and there has been a push in recent years to sign deals in Chinese yuan, leaving them outside the U.S.-dollar-based international financial system. What options are on the table for Beijing?

Peter Piatetsky: Beijing has all the cards here and it's a very bad situation for Russia because Russia is a net exporter, but it doesn't have that many different exports -- minerals, diamonds, [uranium, wheat], but primarily oil -- and Europe is its main destination for oil.

China could buy up that extra oil, but it does not seem to be willing to and Russia's main external trading relationship is with China. However, China's main external trading relationship is with the United States. So what we've seen so far is that China has been very quietly enforcing U.S. sanctions.

A very good example we can look at is [sanctions] against North Korea and Iran. China essentially designated certain banks that aren't [integral] to the economy that can work with Iran and North Korea, and if they get sanctioned then that's an [acceptable] loss, but they're trying to not expose the broader [Chinese] economy.

China can essentially do one thing here, which is to buy more Russian goods, but they don't seem to be willing to do that and Russia doesn't have that many different goods that China is willing to buy.

People stand in line to withdraw U.S. dollars and euros from an ATM in St. Petersburg, Russia, on February 25.
People stand in line to withdraw U.S. dollars and euros from an ATM in St. Petersburg, Russia, on February 25.

The relationship between Russia and China is very transactional. It's not an ideology-based relationship. They both dislike the United States and dislike the U.S.-led world order, but aside from that, I don't think there's much there.

RFE/RL: Now that we've talked about the issue of what could be possible, what about the possible? Given the sanctions packages put forward against Russia, how likely is China to move forward on helping out the Russian economy as it goes into a tailspin? What scenarios seem likely in your mind?

Piatetsky: Really, with the exception [of] energy and wheat, which haven't been touched [so far] because those are Russian exports that also go to Europe, there really aren't that many options.

If we were to say specific ones, [they] would be to buy more Russian goods and extend loans to Russia. But [both] of those are essentially loss-making propositions for China and so what we're really talking about is what is the size of [an] aid package [to Russia from China] that could help.

I think if [China] were to do something it would probably be to buy more oil [and] extend various loans; but Russia, again, just does not produce that many different goods that China is going to want to buy.

RFE/RL: It sounds like you're not bullish on this idea that China is going to swing to Russia's rescue in some way and extend a financial lifeline?

Piatetsky: I think that's not going to happen [and] I would encourage people to put themselves in China's shoes here.

Why would they do that? China benefits from an economically weaker Russia. China does not have Russia's best interests in mind. They're not going to be interested in an economically stronger Russia that can throw its weight around, they don't like that.

China simply doesn't have the incentives to do it. If it did have the incentives, it wouldn't have a lot of ways short of providing massive loans, and those massive loans would essentially be aid -- and I think China doesn't want to do that. Russia [also] doesn't want to be seen as just receiving aid, they still want to be seen as strong.

RFE/RL: How do you see the economic hit from Russia affecting the wider region, especially across Central Asia and the Caucasus, which have deep ties to Russia's economy?

Piatetsky: For Central Asia, this is an absolute disaster, a lot of those economies are heavily remittance-dependent and with Russians losing money and Russians losing jobs, there are going to be less jobs all around.

There's not going to be any protection for Central Asian migrants that are losing jobs, many of [which] are unofficial. So, you're going to see Russians losing jobs [and] Central Asians will lose those jobs much quicker -- so will Georgians -- and the remittances that they were sending back to their home countries will also fall.

So, I would say Central Asia is definitely in for an extremely difficult time economically.

RFE/RL: Does that place China in a position to benefit? China has already been a growing force in this part of the world, is it well positioned to pick up the pieces, so to speak?

Piatetsky: The short answer is yes.

Like [U.S. President Joe] Biden said, Putin has badly miscalculated and I think those photos where you see him 20 feet away from his advisers, most of which are "yes men," shows the quality of the advice that he's getting.

He's had the unintended effect of rallying Europe and pushing the EU, potentially, into ditching Russian energy.

Putin has [also] tremendously strengthened [China]. China has the option now of either giving some sort of economic lifeline to Russia, which is unlikely, but if it did, it would make Russia [even more] dependent on China.

RFE/RL: Moving beyond countries like China, are there any other forms of relief or options on Moscow's table that can help lessen the hurt that has already hit and will be coming in the future?

Piatetsky: Stop the war, it's really that simple.

This is financial nuclear war and the level of sanctions that have been imposed on Russia are potentially more than what has been imposed on Iran, and this has occurred over the course of two weeks. Whereas for Iran, it occurred over the course of about 10 years.

So this is by far the largest sanctions event in history and it's being imposed by a global united front. You have not just the [United States] and the [EU], [but] you have Canada, Japan, Australia, and South Korea -- really every country with an economic hammer is using it -- and China is not coming to Russia's rescue.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Vladimir Putin share a vodka toast over Russian pancakes as Xi visits the 2018 Eastern Economic Forum on Russky Island.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Vladimir Putin share a vodka toast over Russian pancakes as Xi visits the 2018 Eastern Economic Forum on Russky Island.

[Short] of stopping the war and acceding to Europe's demands, there's not much they can do economically.

This doesn't mean Russia will have societal collapse and this doesn't mean that Russia will roll over [to Western demands]. Neither has North Korea or Iran, but what Russians are going to see is less income, less opportunities, less travel, [and] less goods.

Everything about living in Russia is about to get worse, and it's about to get worse for a long time, and it will continue to be essentially until Europe is willing to lift the sanctions.

Interview edited and condensed for clarity
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    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.

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China In Eurasia
Reid Standish

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