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.
What's Beijing's Next Move On Ukraine?
After releasing a 12-point proposal on how to broker a cease-fire in Ukraine and facing allegations from the United States that it is considering arming Moscow, China's involvement in the war is set to enter a new phase.
Finding Perspective: Beijing's so-called peace plan, which is actually more of a position paper than an actual framework for ending the war, was mostly a repackaging of previous Chinese talking points, as I wrote here.
The reception has been largely cold in the West, with officials brushing it aside as a way to cement Russian gains in Ukraine. In Moscow, things were more muted. Russian officials welcomed the Chinese proposal, but added that the conditions for a peaceful resolution of the conflict were not in place "at the moment." Kyiv, meanwhile, said it was good to see China talking about peace and that it hoped Beijing would call on Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine.
Given that it doesn't appear to be moving the needle and that all sides are still willing to give war a chance, what's behind the Chinese move?
As Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told me, "Beijing is looking to speak to a global audience" with the document and also showcase itself as a peacemaker and responsible power to the non-Western world, which tends to be far more sympathetic to Moscow than the West.
Alexander Gabuev, an expert on China-Russia relations at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, added that the proposal also gives Beijing room to lay the blame for continued war at the feet of the West and gain some cover for its tightening relationship with Moscow in the process.
Why It Matters: China has been awkwardly walking a tightrope since Russia invaded and it looks set to keep straddling that line.
The big question is whether Beijing is willing to step up its support, as Washington says it is considering. U.S. officials like CIA Director Bill Burns have clarified that no shipments have taken place and NBC News reported that U.S. intel on the potential transfer was gleaned from Russian officials.
Western officials are on high alert and many analysts are looking for potential backdoors, with Belarusian autocrat Alyaksandr Lukashenka's recent state visit to Beijing watched closely for any kind of military deals that could potentially benefit Moscow, as I reported here.
Still, others see the transfer of military aid to Russia as a red line China isn't willing to cross.
As Zhou Bo, a former senior colonel in the People's Liberation Army, wrote in a recent op-ed for the Financial Times, "If Beijing has refused to send any such support to Moscow in the past 12 months, then why should it change its mind now, especially when it has urged a peaceful resolution to the conflict?"
● Speaking on the sidelines of the "two sessions" political gathering on March 7, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang outlined Beijing's foreign policy agenda for the coming years, defending China's strengthening ties with Russia and taking aim at the United States by warning of catastrophic consequences if it continues down "the wrong path."
● Qin's comments were preceded by Chinese leader Xi Jinping on March 6 at the gathering, where he gave an unusually blunt rebuke of the United States, saying that it had "implemented all-round containment, encirclement, and suppression against us, bringing unprecedentedly severe challenges to our country's development," in a sign of continued tensions ahead.
Expert Corner: Lukashenka Goes To Beijing
Readers asked: "Why would Xi Jinping set aside three days to welcome Belarus's Alyaksandr Lukashenka for a state visit with so much else going on for Beijing around the world?"
To find out more, I asked Nigel Gould-Davies, former British ambassador to Belarus and a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies:
"On the surface, this was mostly about economics, trade, investment, car manufacturing, and further developing some of the joint initiatives like Great Stone Park, the large Chinese-funded industrial area outside of Minsk. But you don't really need a three-day visit by a head of state to accomplish all of that.With few exceptions, Lukashenka rarely travels abroad and -- particularly with everything going on in Belarus's neighborhood -- he needs a good reason to travel all the way to China and spend that amount of time outside the country. So, it makes it hard to avoid this suspicion that this visit was really about the war in Ukraine.
"This also comes just after China unveiled its so-called peace plan, which...[is] a significant Chinese diplomatic intervention, and I think it amplifies China's anxiety about the war and its desire for it to end sooner than later. Lukashenka also has compelling reasons for wanting the war to end as well. In particular, he wants to resist growing Russian pressure for Belarusian forces to become co-combatants and shift from only allowing Belarus to be used to base Russian forces and launch Russian attacks."
You can read the full interview here.
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. Beijing And Moscow In The Information Space
A yearlong study by the German Marshall Fund's Alliance for Securing Democracy found that China and Russia have grown closer together in the information space amid the war in Ukraine, often parroting each other's talking points across state-owned media as part of a wider strategy to undermine the West.
The Details: I spoke with Etienne Soula, one of the report's authors, who told me that "there has definitely been a pro-Russian convergence" from Chinese state-backed media in the last year.
The report notes that this has particularly played out across the Global South, where Beijing has invested heavily in the last decade to build up its media presence.
As Soula said, "China's support for Russia isn't unequivocal" but the "information space is the low-hanging fruit. No one says they will put sanctions on China for supporting Russia there."
"It keeps Russia happy, and it also serves Beijing's broader interests by accelerating a loss of Western influence in places like Africa, where only China really has the capacity to fill the void left by Western powers," he added.
2. Talking China In Eurasia
After a year of war in Ukraine, its ripple effects continue to go global, showing a stark divide between how the West and the rest of the world see the conflict moving forward. On the last episode of Talking China In Eurasia, I spoke with Charles Dunst about this topic and what it means for China's rise in the world.
What You Need To Know: Dunst is a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the author of Defeating The Dictators: How Democracy Can Prevail In The Age Of The Strongman.
On the podcast, we explored the state of play of the world following the Munich Security Conference, a visit to Moscow by top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi, U.S. President Joe Biden's trip to Kyiv, and U.S. concerns over potential Chinese military aid to Russia.
The news cycle for that episode fit well with the theme of Dunst's new book, which is about deepening global divisions between democracies and autocracies. Those added tensions also come as democracy has lost its appeal across much of the world as countries like China offer an alternative path to development and prosperity.
For anyone wanting to dig deeper, Defeating The Dictators is an elegant and personal journey around the world where Dunst, a former foreign correspondent in Southeast Asia, explores the attraction to autocracy and what needs to be done to return the shine to democracy.
You can listen to Talking China In Eurasia here or subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or on Spotify.
3. Free, But Still Silenced
Despite leaving China, many ethnic Kazakhs who were interned there are reluctant to speak about their ordeals now that they're free in Kazakhstan, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported.
What It Means: Many Kazakhs, some of whom are now naturalized Kazakh citizens, are reluctant to talk to the media despite having been settled in Kazakhstan for many years, mostly because they fear Chinese authorities will retaliate against their relatives in Xinjiang.
Erbol Dauletbekuly, a Kazakh activist who has worked with many people interned in western China, says that it is commonplace for the relatives of those who leave to be used as "hostages" in order to give authorities leverage to silence those abroad.
"For each person who decides to go abroad, at least three relatives must register as 'hostages.' Authorities warn [him/her] that if they give interviews or criticize China after going abroad, the relatives will be held accountable," Dauletbekuly said.
Across The Supercontinent
Regional Tour: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made his first visit to Central Asia on February 28 as the region deals with fallout from Russia's invasion of Ukraine and China's strong influence, my colleague Chris Rickleton, RFE/RL's Central Asia correspondent, reported.
Cash Injection: Kazakhstan's Light Rail Transport (LRT) project in Astana, which was originally funded by a Chinese loan before it was embroiled in corruption and delays, could be getting a long-awaited cash injection this spring from the Kazakh government, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reports.
Blackout: Kyrgyzstan's energy grid is struggling. As my colleague Kubatbek Aibashov from RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reports, the government is looking to borrow from international financial institutions and national governments in order to cover electricity imports, including from China.
Pipeline Positioning: China is Turkmenistan's main buyer of gas, but Moscow has been stepping up its engagement with the country of late. The newfound outreach, Chris Rickleton and RFE/RL's Turkmen Service report, may have strong political calculations from the Kremlin.
One Thing To Watch
China accused the United States of overreacting after federal employees were ordered to remove TikTok, the world's most popular social-media platform, which is owned by a Chinese parent company, from government-issued phones.
The U.S. order follows similar moves by the EU and Canada in recent weeks and is likely not the last time that the app will find itself in the crosshairs of Western officials and used as a political football by Beijing and Washington.
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,
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