Did China Back the Wrong Side in Ukraine?

Did China Back the Wrong Side in Ukraine?

While Beijing hasn't joined other world powers in condemning Russia's invasion, Premier Li Keqiang said last week that he was "deeply" worried.

Russia and China have been increasingly lumped together in recent years. The two nations have topped the list of "near-peer adversaries" that the United States will face in the coming years. As both are ruled by essentially single-party systems, it is easy to suggest that they are natural allies.

It is also true that Beijing and Moscow have fostered closer relations. At a February 4 meeting in Beijing on the opening day of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, Russia's Vladimir Putin and China's Xi Jinping formalized those relations by signing a 5,000-word accord stating that there are "no limits" to their nations' partnership. They hailed each other as "best friends," and that has led China to turn its back on Ukraine, one of Beijing’s former partners. The impact of this development can’t be overstated.

For three decades, Ukraine has had close economic ties with China. In 2019, China even replaced Russia as Ukraine's largest trading partner. Ukraine has also been a major arms supplier for Beijing (second only to Russia), and China has been the largest buyer of Ukrainian military hardware.

The People's Liberation Army Navy's first aircraft carrier, Liaoning, is a refurbished Soviet Navy carrier that China purchased from Ukraine.

Multi-Vector to Single Vector Policy

For years, Kiev's relations with China followed its so-called multi-vector policy, in which Ukraine attempted to develop pragmatic relations with all the players in the international arena. China was essentially a counterbalance to Russian influence, but changes came after Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014.

Ukraine reacted by adopting a "single vector" policy, which called for greater integration with the European Union (EU) and NATO. That didn't exclude cooperation with Beijing in theory, but in practice, it complicated their relations and drove a wedge between them.

China on the Sidelines

Beijing has remained on the sidelines of the war in Ukraine. While China hasn't joined other world powers in condemning Russia's invasion, Premier Li Keqiang said last week that he was "deeply" worried about the crisis, warning that sanctions leveled on Russia could hurt global growth. "On Ukraine, indeed the current situation there is grave, and China is deeply concerned and grieved," Li said.

While Li also called for a "peaceful resolution of the crisis"—following Beijing's line not to call it an "invasion"—the Chinese premier didn't state whether China would, in fact, support Russia economically. He warned that the sanctions would continue to shock the world economy as it struggles to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Earlier this month, Oxford Economics estimated the war would reduce global GDP by 0.2 percent, with a possible decline of 0.6 percent this year if the fighting persists through 2023.

Beijing may also have taken notice of the world’s reaction to Russia's invasion, something that could guide China's future economic and foreign policy. President Xi has also reportedly been alarmed by Russia's brutality, which could cast a negative light on China.

While no cracks are visible yet, Moscow and Beijing remain far from perfect partners. As the war in Ukraine drags on, the world will see how long Beijing is willing to support its partner.

Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.

Image: Reuters.