Moscow and Beijing recently agreed on an in-depth strategic partnership on the sidelines of the Winter Olympics. But what does this mean for the conflict between Russia and Ukraine? Experts say China’s support for Russia has limits Janice Kluge by the Foundation for Science and Policy (SWP). However, Beijing will not break with Russia because of this. In the interview, Kluge also talked about whether Beijing could ease sanctions against Russia and how the relationship between the two countries could develop in the future. “China owns the future, Russia is trying to hold on to the past,” he says.
ntv.de: At the opening of the Winter Games in Beijing, the presidents of China and Russia, Xi and Putin, showed unity. At the Munich Security Conference, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed the right of all nations to sovereignty – and explicitly included Ukraine. Were you surprised by these statements?
Janis Kluge: In terms of substance, Wang’s statement didn’t surprise me. However, it was surprising that China had positioned itself at all, because very little has been heard from China about the current situation in the past few weeks. Beijing wants to stay out of this conflict or has trouble positioning itself politically. To me, these statements were a sign that Beijing does not want to be drawn into an escalation between Russia and the West because it does not control the dynamics of escalation.
What do the statements mean for Russia?
This was an indication that China’s support for Russia also has limits, for example when it comes to Russia’s policy in Ukraine. This does not mean, of course, that China will break with Russia if an invasion occurs. But this means that there are limits to the partnership between the two countries and that it goes further only as long as both countries are able to form their own relations with the West with full sovereignty and do not allow themselves to be drawn into conflicts between the two countries. interest on the other hand.
Is China’s position weakening Putin, or did he expect it?
This was no surprise to Putin. The relationship with China is actually seen in a very sober way in Russia. Of course, both parties always indicate very strongly that nothing works for them. In fact, there is a relatively critical discourse on this subject in Moscow.
How will China respond to any further escalation of the situation?
It is a stable and important partnership for both sides. At the same time, after the experiences of the past few years, Moscow does not expect the Chinese side to openly support Russia’s steps in the event of an escalation. Russia will likely expect China to be vigilant and condemn any escalation steps, including sanctions. China will not take a clear position in this conflict, either on the side of Russia or on the side of the West.
To what extent can China ease sanctions against Russia in the short or medium term?
Of course, this largely depends on the procedures that are put in place. In the short term, I don’t expect China to be able to ease sanctions, and it probably won’t want that either. China will only do so if it sees it as having an economic advantage of its own. The sanctions that followed the annexation of Crimea in 2014 showed that China seized the opportunity and replaced some Western investors in the energy sector, for example, or took measures where Western companies were forced to withdraw. But Beijing did not give out handouts. China did not sympathize, but was very concerned about its economic advantage. So, I don’t expect Russia to rush to help avoid or circumvent sanctions. Especially since economic relations between China and the West are much more important than economic relations with Russia. China will not take excessive risks or spend itself simply to help Russia.
This looks like an alliance of convenience. There does not appear to be a real alliance between the two countries yet.
Russian and Chinese diplomats always make it clear that this is not an alliance between the two countries. But I would say that it is more than an alliance of convenience because the partnership has been very stable for a very long time and the overlapping interests are significant. This applies to prevent the so-called color revolutions Or from civil society protests in their country or in neighboring countries. There is a common vision of the political system and the legitimacy of authoritarian rule. These are two fundamental points in common interests of Russia and China that also work together in international organizations such as the United Nations Security Council. It is a long-term but far-reaching alliance, and the West must be prepared for it to remain stable for years or decades to come.
At their summit, the two presidents agreed to deepen the strategic partnership. Exactly what was decided there?
During the meeting, new oil and gas contracts were signed. But the vision of a world order not dominated by Western ideas and institutions was presented. The joint statement also addressed the question of how democracy is defined, how alternative forms of government are legitimized, and how they can implement their ideas of order. China and Russia no longer see themselves as just a counterweight to the United States, but are advancing their own blueprint for a new world order. This is, of course, a long process, but it is emerging gradually.
China is now much stronger economically than Russia, which in turn is very powerful militarily. Do they both meet at eye level?
So far, the two sides have succeeded in shaping the relations in such a way that they meet on equal terms and that the great economic superiority of China does not yet dominate the relationship. Russia is very careful not to get involved in projects dominated by the Chinese. It tries to maintain a certain balance in any form of cooperation. The same applies to the Chinese side.
Will that change in the coming years or decades?
I think the key is time – and this is playing against Russia’s place in the world. Russia is more willing than China to rely on escalation to avoid being left behind due to its economic inferiority. On the other hand, China can count on expanding its power internationally over the next ten years. This contrast is crucial: China owns the future, and Russia is trying to cling to the past. Both countries differ greatly in their strategies and worldview.
Could this lead to conflicts of interest in the future, for example in Central Asia? China has been still very cautious about the recent unrest in Kazakhstan.
So far I haven’t seen these conflicts because they both have the same interests. It was in the interests of both Russia and China to stabilize the regime in Kazakhstan. So China had absolutely no reason to resist the Russian-led intervention. In addition, Central Asia is only one element in the overall picture of bilateral relations. Of course, conflicts can erupt here again and again, simply because China is more economically dominant than Moscow in Central Asia. But for now, the two presidents are willing to reclaim such isolated conflicts because they are both of the utmost importance to the partnership. I also do not think that domestic conflicts of interest will lead to a rift in Russian-Chinese relations in the future, because this is very important for both sides at the strategic level.
Marcus Leibold spoke to Janis Kluge
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