What’s China’s stance on Russia, and how can it change?

Recently, Western politicians have increasingly turned to Beijing’s leadership in an effort to persuade China to use its influence with Russia on the topic of the war in Ukraine. China is Russia’s most powerful friend and major commercial partner.

American diplomats urged China to convince Russia to refrain from using nuclear weapons against Ukraine. On November 4, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz came to Beijing with a delegation and urged Chinese President Xi Jinping to use his influence to push Russia to end the war in Ukraine.

Both presidents agreed that it is “irresponsible and terribly dangerous” for Russia to talk about using nuclear weapons, according to Scholz.

But it appears that China is engaging in a double game; while Beijing backs Ukraine’s sovereignty, Xi has declined to condemn the invasion, and it appears that China has not yet used its clout with Russia to put an end to the conflict.

Despite the fact that Chinese leader Xi Jinping called Russian President Vladimir Putin “the best friend” and the Russian leader responded in kind, China did not back Russia when the UN voted for a resolution condemning the invasion of Ukraine. China, however, also did not object to the invasion.

Since the invasion of Ukraine, Russia has started to shift its trade toward the east and work to forge ties with nations that are not inside the Western world’s sphere of influence.

Relationship with no restrictions?

Beijing and Moscow signed a treaty indicating that there are “no limitations” to collaboration between the two nations shortly before Russia invaded Ukraine.

However, there are restrictions; for instance, if Russia were to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. No nation would endure a nuclear conflict because it could lead to the end of humanity. On this matter, not even China can go beyond the breaking point.

China could change its current “neutral stance” in the Russia-Ukraine war in one of two situations, the first of which is if Russia employs tactical nuclear weapons. This would force China to take a much stronger position on Ukraine and put pressure on Moscow. The Russian leadership considers this eventual China’s response, and that’s why it is restrained from employing nuclear weapons.

Hard decisions

China finds itself in a difficult situation. Beijing, which is experienced in how to operate in such situations and increase its authority, is interested in a stable and predictable world order. In this regard, China does not benefit from the war in Ukraine, with whom it also has trading links.

China, on the other hand, shares Russian views on a multipolar world and the need to weaken the West, and its alliance with Russia gives it a weapon with which to challenge the United States and Europe. However, even in this case, things are not that straightforward: the Russian invasion of Ukraine sparked a rare solidarity among Western nations, which urgently coordinated approval of more and more sanctions against Moscow. Such unity does not benefit China.

The example of Ukraine demonstrated to China that despite Europe’s reliance on Russian energy supplies, the EU was still able to present a united front and impose severe sanctions on Russia when it launched an all-out war.

China found itself in a difficult position. China has some political and economic reasons for working with Russia, on the one hand. China, on the other hand, is interested in working with Ukraine. Thirdly, it is crucial for China that its ties with the European Union do not deteriorate.

Therefore, China, on the one hand, seeks to preserve and, possibly, even expand its strategic partnership with Russia, but it is important for it not to get too close to Moscow – this will increase the risk of imposing sanctions against Beijing itself.

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