01/27/2022, 00.00
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China has a lot to lose from a Russian invasion of Ukraine

by Emanuele Scimia

​Beijing officially supports Russian security demands. However, Beijing needs a stable Europe for its own economy. Kiev is a Chinese partner in the Belt and Road Initiative. A Russian-Ukrainian conflict would test the strategic partnership between the Chinese giant and the Kremlin.


Rome (AsiaNews) - A Russian invasion of Ukraine is a crisis that China would gladly do without. The Chinese government has asked the United States to respect Russia's demands for security along the eastern European border. Yet fundamentally, Beijing would prefer not to have to take any sides in a far off conflict that it is not directly involved in. A competing Chinese attack on Taiwan in order to occupy the US on two fronts, as some observers insinuate, can also be ruled out.

If possible Russian and Chinese coups are seen as a test for the U.S and its allies in Europe, a Russian-Ukrainian confrontation would also test the "quasi-alliance" between Beijing and Moscow. China and Russia have recently intensified political, economic and military cooperation to counterbalance pressure from the US and its allies. In a new sign of rapprochement, the two sides reached an agreement in principle on 25 January to coordinate their respective Asia policies.

However, China did not recognise the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, like the Kremlin's support for the Russian-speaking separatist republics of Ukraine's Donbass. It would be contradictory for the Chinese leadership to support actions of territorial "piracy", even if by a strategic partner. Beijing has as a pillar of its national security the fight against separatism and independence, whether in Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong or Inner Mongolia.

Ukraine is also a Chinese partner in the Belt and Road Initiative, the global infrastructure plan launched in 2013 by Xi Jinping to increase his country's commercial (and therefore geopolitical) centrality. China needs to find an alternative route to the northern one of the "new Silk Roads", which passes through Russia, Belarus and the Baltic States. The political clash between the EU and Minsk makes this route unattractive at the moment, as does the ongoing dispute between Beijing and Lithuania over Taiwan.

In this regard, a direct train connecting China and Ukraine via Mongolia and Russia has been running since June. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would like to turn his country into a "bridge" for investment and trade between the Chinese giant and Europe. However, the Ukrainian route can only become important for the Belt and Road if Kiev improves its infrastructure, for which the Chinese have invested billion a year between 2019 and 2021.

Behind official criticism of NATO and declarations of understanding for Russian security demands, the Chinese actually want stability for their business, and certainly not a Europe inflamed and upset by Moscow's incursions into Ukraine. This calculation outweighs even the hypothetical benefits of having Washington engaged in Europe and forced to lighten its military presence in East Asia. Beijing will continue to call for a diplomatic solution to the crisis, even though it seems unlikely to want to make direct attempts to "cool off" Vladimir Putin's tempers.

Excluding military (and perhaps political) support, with a Russian invasion of Ukraine China will have to decide whether to cover Moscow's back at least economically. As Chris Miller of the Foreign Policy Research Institute notes, in the event of harsh Western sanctions on the Russians, Beijing will be forced to take a stand, given its economic ties with Russia.

If China adheres to Western sanctions fearing repercussions for its economy, Miller notes, it will prove to be dependent on the US economic and financial system and an unreliable partner for Russia. In the event of Chinese economic support for the Russians, on the other hand, there could be a widening of the confrontation, with the United States ready to indirectly sanction Chinese entities that help the Russians.

There is speculation that Putin will not move before the end of the Beijing Winter Olympics (20 February): to do otherwise would be unwelcome by Xi Jinping. This is history repeating itself: at the opening ceremony of the Beijing Summer Olympics, on 8 August 2008, war broke out between Russia and Georgia.

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