Picture: Vladimir Astapkovich/Sputnik/AFP/Taken on March 21, 2023 – Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping shake hands during a signing ceremony following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow.
China last week unleashed some of its strongest criticism against Russia since Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine. Yet any suggestion that Xi Jinping is shifting his view on the war amounts to wishful thinking.
The rare admonition took place Friday over an incident involving Chinese citizens – including a popular video blogger – who were denied entry from Kazakhstan into Russia at a border checkpoint. Video footage widely circulated on Chinese social media platforms over the weekend showed Russian border officials going through suitcases, with one of the travellers saying he felt like he was being treated as a criminal.
“Russia’s brutal and excessive law-enforcement activities in this incident have seriously violated the legitimate rights and interests of the Chinese citizens,” the Chinese Embassy in Moscow said in a post on the social media platform WeChat.
Yet while the language was unusually harsh, it hardly signals a broader shift from Beijing. Since Russia’s invasion, China has repeatedly sought to create some space with Moscow on issues such as the use of nuclear weapons and attacks on civilians, even as Xi consistently backs Putin’s reasons for going to war – not least because Beijing sees the US and its allies strengthening ties with Taiwan.
The incident shows the world that relations between China and Russia are more layered and nuanced than understood by many in the West, according to Henry Wang Huiyao, founder of the Centre for China and Globalisation research group based in Beijing.
“China needs to maintain good relations with Russia,” he said. “It doesn’t mean they’re in favour of everything Russia does.”
Xi, who signed up to a “no limits” friendship with Putin shortly before his invasion, has sought to portray China as a neutral broker on Ukraine, releasing a 12-point blueprint for bringing peace that included calls to respect sovereignty, facilitate grain exports and halt all hostilities. While the road map has been widely panned by the US and its allies, it has bought Xi credibility among the so-called Global South and won China a seat at Ukraine talks hosted by Saudi Arabia over the weekend.
China sent a delegation led by veteran diplomat Li Hui to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to join more than 40 countries including the US and European nations – but not Russia. While the discussions brought little in the way of concrete steps to stop the war or reverse Russia’s territorial gains, they showed Xi’s success in countering US efforts to isolate Beijing due to its relationship with Russia.
Still, China has several reasons to be irked with Putin, including his move to end a deal that allowed grain exports through the Black Sea, leading to food supply problems that also impact China. And that’s only part of the problem, according to Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“The main issue remains the unpredictability of the long-term nature of the conflict,” he said. “The war destabilises the world, and this is bad from Beijing’s perspective as much as they might like the distracting effect it has toward the West’s focus on China.”
China has also made some economic overtures to Ukraine, although not to a degree that comes anywhere close to its trade ties with Russia.
Last month, China’s deputy commerce minister met with Ukraine’s deputy economy minister in Beijing, pledging to import more products from Ukraine and develop mutually beneficial economic and trade cooperation with the country, according to a Chinese readout from the meeting. China’s exports to Ukraine totalled nearly $233 million in June, down from a high of $1.2 billion from January last year.
By contrast, China’s exports to Russia reached a new historical monthly high of 69 billion yuan ($9.6 billion) in June. Its crude imports from Russia rose 8.2 percent month-on-month to a record 10.50 million tons in June, according to customs data.
China and Russia are also deepening military co-operation.
Over the weekend, both countries sent 11 navy patrol ships near Alaska, according to a Wall Street Journal report, the seventh bilateral military exercise between the two nuclear-armed nations this year. It also set a new milestone in co-operation, marking the highest number of joint military exercises in the past two decades between the neighbours, according to data compiled by the US National Defence University and Bloomberg News.
At the same time, Xi isn’t afraid to hit back at Russia – particularly if its actions could pose a threat to his domestic standing or make him look weak. The border incident showed that many social-media users in China remain sceptical that Russia is worth all the grief Beijing is getting from the US and its allies.
A hashtag on China’s response to the incident saw nearly 50 million views on the Twitter-like Weibo platform, at one point ranking among the top ten most searched topics. Videos posted by social media accounts run by party-backed outlets such as Beijing Youth Daily primarily focused on the mistreatment of the travellers, echoing parts of the embassy statement that such behaviour isn’t in line with China and Russia’s “current friendly situation” and “the trend of increasingly close exchanges between people”.
Some of the most upvoted comments on Weibo questioned whether the travellers had failed to give a bribe, while others cautioned against having deep diplomatic relations with Moscow. “It goes without saying that one cannot have a deep friendship with Russia,” said Weibo user “Wall-E_22,” in a post that received almost 1,000 likes.
Russia is looking into the matter to avoid similar issues in the future, Tass reported Saturday, citing an unidentified person familiar with the matter. The incident won’t harm relations between Russia and China, the state news wire said, adding that Western media is using the issue to try to undermine ties between the countries.
While the relationship with Russia is “too important for China to throw Vladimir Putin under the bus”, Xi must also show his people that he will stand up for their interests, said Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Centre.
“The strongly worded statement is not a signal to the Russian authorities themselves, but rather a reaction and signal to Chinese domestic online public to say that Xi Jinping’s government and MOFA is vigorous in protecting the rights of Chinese regardless of who the violators are,” Gabuev said, referring to China’s Foreign Ministry. “Be it enemies like the West or friends like Russia.”
This article was first published on Bloomberg