The common political ideology brought Russia and China ever closer together. Putin’s Ukraine war has now changed that. Because for China’s ruler Xi, what counts most is the economic power of his country. An internationally ostracized and sanctioned partner like Russia becomes a risk.
Russia and China, supposedly two friends, between whom no sheet of paper fits. At least that was the direction that Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping announced in Beijing in early February.
Now, four months and a Russian war of aggression against Ukraine later, the Chinese government is trying to distance itself from the Kremlin ruler. Beijing has now banned Russian airlines from flying into Chinese airspace with confiscated machines from Western airlines. Moscow is still holding $10 billion worth of planes in retaliation for free world sanctions over the Kremlin’s aggression against Ukraine.
Alexander Görlach is a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs in New York. The PhD linguist and theologian teaches democratic theory in Germany, Austria and Spain as an honorary professor at Leuphana University. In the 2017-18 academic year, he was at National Taiwan University and City University Hong Kong to conduct research on China’s rise. He is currently researching new technologies at the University of Oxford’s Internet Institute and how they are used in democracies and abused in dictatorships.
But that’s not all: The People’s Republic is also not helping Russia to maintain, repair and supply spare parts for its civilian aircraft fleet. With this step, the companies in the People’s Republic want to avoid being subject to sanctions themselves. As a result, the Russian fleet will no longer be fully operational after a few months.
Beijing’s political course has been rhetorical support for the Russian dictator, especially when it comes to the common enemy, the United States of America. However, the economic course of the People’s Republic was different from the beginning of the war. Beijing, for example, gave up quite early on when Moscow asked for arms deliveries. Rumors that Xi is said to have complied with Putin’s request have not yet been confirmed.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine posed a problem for the People’s Republic, since it itself always insisted on the sovereignty of the states in order to consolidate its own claims against Taiwan and Hong Kong. China itself had recognized Ukraine as its own state. It was speculated that Beijing had not been informed of the impending attack. Otherwise, a few days earlier, it might not have been possible to get involved in a joint paper that praised the friendship between the two countries and announced cooperation in many sectors that are important for dictatorships, such as Internet surveillance.
Today this reading is more likely than ever. Delegations from the foreign ministries of both countries met recently. While top Russian diplomat Sergei Lavrov celebrated the meeting as a confirmation of Russia’s course towards Ukraine by China and the state media in Russia reported accordingly, there was only silence in China’s controlled media. The meeting was only identified by the Foreign Ministry as the meeting of a think tank from both countries.
While at the beginning of March it still looked as if the world would have to fear a new Moscow-Beijing axis, recent developments show that Beijing tends to classify Russia as a problem. Certainly, Xi will not publicly distance himself from Putin. However, the language spoken by the two events described is intended to discreetly show the world that Moscow is not unconditionally supported.
Because there is too much at stake for the People’s Republic to stop the economic development, which has been noticeably slowed down by the severe Covid outbreak in the country this year, through an alliance with a state that Beijing, if at all, as a kind of Junior partner considered, puts in jeopardy.