Xi Jinping has made his choice. He is sticking with his ‘best friend’ Vladimir Putin, and no end of Russian atrocities or wishful thinking in the west is going to alter that. Their axis of autocracy presents a far-reaching challenge to western democracies, which the UK in particular is struggling to come to terms with.
There has been a chorus of western voices calling on China to act ‘responsibly’, exercise its influence with Putin, and generally live up to its supposed commitment to the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity. That will not happen. Those principles were always a myth, but fundamentally Xi and Putin have too much in common.
China’s state-owned media has continued to echo Moscow’s denials of war crimes. China’s tightly controlled social media has amplified claims that atrocities against civilians were staged. ‘After all, Zelensky is an actor,’ said Song Zhongping, a supposed academic and frequent media pundit, in one of a series of widely shared video clips. He repeated discredited claims that bodies littering the streets of Bucha came back to life after being filmed.
On Friday China’s foreign ministry spokesman accused Nato of messing up Europe and stirring up conflicts in the Asia-pacific region. Wang Wenbin was responding to Liz Truss’s Mansion House speech, in which she said, ‘Countries must play by the rules. And that includes China.’ Beijing voted against the (successful) suspension of Russia from the UN Human Rights Council, and in recent days the authorities have ramped up efforts to blame Nato and America for provoking Russia. ‘US has inescapable responsibilities for Ukraine crisis,’ thundered the People’s Daily. While the military newspaper, the PLA Daily, ran a series on the ‘despicable role by the United States and the West in the Ukrainian crisis,’ and repeated bogus claims that the US was developing biochemical weapons in Ukraine.
Chinese state media has echoed Russian claims to be ‘denazifying’ Ukraine, and have likened the rise of supposed Ukrainian ‘Naziism’ to the Hong Kong protests – with both presented as examples of ‘foreign forces interfering with domestic affairs’. The word ‘invasion’ has still not crossed the lips of Communist party leaders.
The CCP has taken this toxic brew into universities and schools, with teachers required to attend lectures on how to ‘unify thoughts and correctly guide students’ understanding’ of the conflict. Party members across the country have been summoned to screenings of a CCP-produced documentary on the collapse of the Soviet Union, which is depicted as a tragedy, with Russia portrayed as a victim of western perfidy and Putin as a hero for restoring Russian pride.
Ukraine has shown considerable forbearance towards China, which was an important trading partner for Kyiv before the war. When China’s Wang Yi told his Ukrainian counterpart, ‘China stands ready to play a constructive role,’ Dmytro Kuleba expressed gratitude – possibly through gritted teeth. Beijing simply cannot be taken seriously as a mediator.
The ability of Russia to ride out sanctions depends more than anything else on help from China’s energy giants, to whom Moscow is dangling offers of cheap gas and oil. The big three, Sinopec, China National Petroleum Corp (CNPC) and China National Offshore Oil Corp (CNOOC), have so far been cautious – Sinopec reportedly has suspended talks for a major petrochemical investment and a gas marketing venture in Russia.
For the moment, Beijing is showing restraint, wary of attracting secondary sanctions, but too much can be read into this. China seethes with resentment at the sanctions, which it sees as a greater evil than Russian aggression. It is calculating that they will soon fray, along with western unity, and to this end has put considerable effort into trying to drive a wedge between Europe and America, and between European nations. It is a strategy that has worked well enough in the past, and Xi has called on Europe to act more independently of the US.
So far, he has underestimated the strength of European revulsion at Russia’s aggression. ‘For us, the war in Ukraine is a defining moment for whether we live in a world governed by rules or by force,’ said Josep Borrell, the EU’s top diplomat before travelling to Kyiv with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to meet Ukrainian President Zelensky. Von der Leyen has urged member states to step up arms deliveries to Kyiv.
When China’s foreign minister Wang Yi met his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov for the first time since the invasion he repeated earlier pledges of ‘no limits’ to China-Russia cooperation. He said the two sides will ‘promote a multi-polar world and democracy in international relations.’ In a nutshell, this explains the common way they see the world – their hunger for an international order that is safe for autocrats. It is a vision of big power politics and spheres of influence, where there is no room for self-determination and the rights of pesky democracies like Ukraine or Taiwan to make their own security and economic choices.
It is true that China has a far bigger stake in the global economy than Russia, and would seem to have an interest in maintaining stability. But against that must be weighed the deep hatred and paranoia shared by Xi and Putin about the American-led international order. Putin evoked the concept of the Russkiy Mir, unifying the Russian World, to justify his aggression in Ukraine. Xi has his Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation. Both are almost messianic visions of restoring national greatness, driven by an ethnic chauvinism that has far more in common with Nazism than anything that President Zelenskyy has ever conjured up in Kyiv.
Xi shares Putin’s aims and beliefs. If he has any unease over Ukraine, it is because Russia’s incompetent armed forces so far have failed in their objectives and Putin has flaunted his thuggery to the world in a manner that can’t be easily glossed over. The bungled war will not undermine their relationship, but it will enhance China’s role as the dominant partner – and ultimately the bigger threat to western democracies.
Putin’s assault on Ukraine has generated much soul-searching about how the West, and Europe in particular, could have allowed themselves to become so dependent on Russian hydrocarbons. But there is a wider lesson here – about the danger of over-dependence on any aggrieved dictator with imperialist dreams.
The risks of doing business with China have been growing for some time. Beijing has, does and will continue to use trade, investment and market access as tools of coercion, and even before the Ukraine war, many western businesses were re-examining their supply chains and investments. Disruption from China’s ‘zero-Covid’ policy is a further factor.
The risks are multiplying. If Xi does give material support to Putin, China will be hit by secondary sanctions, to which Beijing will no doubt retaliate. Then there is Taiwan, which China claims as its own, and has threatened to take by force. The democratic self-governing island has been brought into sharp focus by the Ukraine invasion.
In the short term, Ukrainian resolve, together with the strength of western sanctions and unity (so far) of liberal democracies have probably given Xi pause for thought over Taiwan. He is now unlikely to rush to invade, and western support for the island will strengthen as a result of Ukraine.
The belated pursuit of Russian oligarchs, once so warmly welcomed in the UK, and the costly scramble by western companies to leave Russia after sanctions were imposed, should serve as a warning for those urging business as usual with China.
Boris Johnson has shown admiral leadership on Ukraine, but his government’s China policy remains deeply muddled, and appears not to have taken onboard the wider implications of the Putin-Xi axis. As the CCP was becoming ever more complicit with Russian barbarity, reports emerged that the UK government is to allow the take-over by a Chinese state-backed company of Newport Wafer Fab, Britain’s biggest microchip factory. While in Cambridge, Prince Charles was formally opening the Entopia Building, the new £12 million headquarters for the university’s institute for sustainability leadership. The name was coined by Lei Zhang, a Chinese billionaire whose green energy company came up with half the funding. When Zhang is not building wind turbines he is a member of China’s rubber stamp parliament and a related advisory body to the Communist party. The prime minister has also ordered the re-start of high level trade talks with Beijing.
It is all depressingly familiar, and a far cry from the more robust scrutiny of Chinese investments promised by Johnson. If there is one overriding lesson from the Ukraine war it must surely be that placing bets on tyrants who dream of world domination is not a great idea – whether that tyrant is in Moscow or Beijing.