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China Closely Watching Western Handling Of Ukrainian-Russian Tensions

A giant screen broadcasts news footage of a virtual meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, at a shopping mall in Beijing in December.

Beijing is closely following Russia’s military buildup along its border with Ukraine, viewing it as a litmus test for political unity in the West and using the mounting tensions as an opportunity to strengthen its ties with Moscow, analysts say.

In a call with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on January 27, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned the United States and its allies not to “hype up the crisis” around Ukraine and called for a peaceful resolution to the escalating crisis, saying Russia’s “reasonable security concerns should be taken seriously.”

“Regional security cannot be guaranteed by strengthening or even expanding military blocs,” Wang said, according to a Foreign Ministry statement, in reference to demands issued by the Kremlin that Ukraine not be allowed to join NATO.

Beijing was relatively mute amid the buildup of more than 100,000 Russian troops, but Wang’s remarks, which echoed messaging from Russian President Vladimir Putin, were China’s most explicit so far in support of the Kremlin, reflecting a growing bond between the two countries’ governments and a shared opposition towards the United States.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (left) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov greet each other on the sidelines of a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Dushanbe in September.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi (left) and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov greet each other on the sidelines of a meeting of the Collective Security Treaty Organization in Dushanbe in September.

While not part of a formal alliance together, Beijing and Moscow have nurtured diplomatic and defensive ties into a strong partnership that looks set to deepen as Putin heads to China to hold a summit with Xi and attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics on February 4.

Beyond watching the situation in Ukraine for opportunities to chide the United States and boost relations with Moscow, analysts say China also sees it as a crucial test for American resolve and the strength of transatlantic ties, which could have long-term consequences for how Beijing approaches its own geopolitical flash point in Taiwan.

“China is always watching and seeing how Western alliances like NATO are holding up under pressure,” Theresa Fallon, the director of the Center for Russia Europe Asia Studies in Brussels, told RFE/RL. “That makes this crisis about much more than just Ukraine. It’s also a broader stress test for the West from Beijing’s point of view.”

Litmus Test?

Tensions in the Taiwan Strait, the area that separates the island from mainland China, have grown in recent years, with Beijing routinely sending jets to buzz Taiwanese airspace and holding military exercises close to the island.

Beijing considers Taiwan to be a province of China and “reuniting” with the island has become a legacy issue for Xi. While the Chinese leader repeatedly talks of an eventual peaceful unification with Taiwan, he has said that Beijing would retake it by force if necessary.

With China’s territorial ambitions in mind, the Western response to Moscow’s security demands on NATO and the possibility of a Russian invasion of Ukraine are being watched closely by Beijing.

“Ukraine is a place where Russia and China’s interests are converging,” Jessica Brandt, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, told RFE/RL. “They have very different long-term objectives, but in the near term they are united in denting the power of the United States and European cohesion.”

The United States has been vocal in its opposition to Russia’s military movements near the Ukrainian border and Blinken told RFE/RL during a January 27 interview that Russia would face “massive consequences” if it chooses “the path of aggression” with Ukraine.

RFE/RL Interview: Blinken Warns Russia Not To Choose 'Path Of Aggression'
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But Kremlin demands for a moratorium on NATO expansion and a pullback of the alliance's troops and weaponry away from Russia have also exposed gaps in the Western response.

The United States and its allies have reportedly assembled a punishing set of financial, technological, and military sanctions against Russia that would go into effect shortly after a renewed invasion of Ukraine. But divisions over how to enforce such measures, especially in Germany and France, could lessen their impact.

The lack of cohesion on how best to go about deterring Russia or what measures to take in the event of an attack on Ukraine was also on display following Germany’s refusal to grant reexport licenses to Estonia to send German-made artillery to Ukraine.

“Both China and Russia can press and grow those fissures that already exist in the transatlantic alliance,” Brandt said. “It's a ripe opportunity for them to pursue these goals.”

But while analysts say the tensions in Ukraine are an important test that China is monitoring and that Western disunity could embolden Beijing in the future, the Kremlin's designs on Ukraine are unlikely to shift China’s calculus about using force against Taiwan.

A Taiwanese flag is carried by a Chinook helicopter during a rehearsal for the Island’s National Day celebration in Taipei on October 7.
A Taiwanese flag is carried by a Chinook helicopter during a rehearsal for the Island’s National Day celebration in Taipei on October 7.

Unlike Ukraine, the United States is committed by law to protect Taiwan, with the Taiwan Relations Act requiring Washington to ensure the island can defend itself and to treat all threats toward it as matters of “grave concern.” Moreover, many experts believe Beijing prefers to use economic and political tools, rather than military ones, to influence Taipei and allow China to take control of the island.

“There are certainly implications from Russia invading Ukraine that affect China’s calculation in its own context for Taiwan, but that’s just one element among many,” Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, a fellow at National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan and a former adviser to the European Parliament, told RFE/RL. “Ultimately, what China does in Taiwan won’t be decided by what Moscow does in Ukraine.”

A New Kind Of Partnership

Amid Russia’s renewed push against Ukraine, Russian-Chinese bonds appear to be growing to levels that seemed unlikely even a decade ago.

Andrei Denisov, Russia’s ambassador to China, said Moscow regularly updates Beijing on progress in its security talks with the United States, and Chinese state media personalities and diplomats have begun echoing Russia’s talking points over tensions with Ukraine and NATO that portray the alliance as an aggressor and Washington as using the situation for political gain.

Chinese goodwill toward Russia was also on display on December 15, when Xi and Putin talked up their partnership in the face of growing confrontations with the United States and a shared hostility toward the West.

The call highlighted the ways in which Russia and China are drawing on each other for mutual support, with Putin criticizing the AUKUS (Australia, the United States, and Britain) partnership in the Pacific and Xi supporting Moscow’s demands for security guarantees to limit the West’s influence across the former Soviet Union.

Putin meets with Xi via video link from his residence outside Moscow on December 15.
Putin meets with Xi via video link from his residence outside Moscow on December 15.

The Kremlin said security in Europe is also set to be on the agenda as Putin heads to China. The summit marks the Chinese leader’s first face-to-face meeting with a head of state in nearly two years and the pair will look to cement their partnership amid the rivalry with Washington.

But while the Russian and Chinese leaders will continue to show “a united front” and although Beijing favors the pressure that Moscow has mounted against the West, Ferenczy says it is unknown if China would be fully supportive of another Russian invasion of Ukraine.

“A Russian invasion would have wider implications for other parts of the world,” she said. “For China, it’s a question about whether that’s good for their interests or if it’s better that Russia holds back.”

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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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