Is China Distancing Itself From Russia?

Top Chinese officials, including Xi Jinping himself, have recently made disparaging remarks towards Russia. While this has prompted some analysts to suggest China is distancing itself from the Kremlin, the reality is more complex.

In fact, Chinese officials have made their disdain for Putin clear for years. Bureaucrats working in the Ministries of Foreign Affairs, State Security, Commerce, and more have described Putin as impulsive and emotional ever since his annexation of Crimea in 2014.

But more recent remarks have made headlines given China’s stance on the invasion of Ukraine, which many see as a passive support of Russia. A couple of weeks ago, unnamed Chinese officials told the Financial Times that “Putin is crazy.”

“The invasion decision was made by a very small group of people,” they asserted, “China shouldn’t simply follow Russia.”

The comments shocked people around the world – presumably, exactly as they were intended to. They’re part of a larger foreign policy shift Beijing is executing: decoupling from Russia. Or at least, that’s the illusion their rhetoric is creating.

When Putin launched his invasion on the 24th of February, most people assumed he must have told Xi Jinping of the decision in advance. Especially given that just three weeks prior, the two leaders agreed on a ‘partnership without limits’.

But Beijing claims they were not clued into Putin’s plans – and it’s unlikely they’re lying, given Putin’s own Prime Minister and the governor of Russia’s Central Bank were also kept in the dark.

China also suggests that Russia’s emergence as a weaker nation thanks to the war makes them less appealing as an ally than Europe. But a weaker Russia is actually an advantage for Beijing, as its economic dependence on China will give Beijing greater leverage in international fora.

Other assertions made by Beijing have less evidence to back them up. Top Chinese officials, including the Supreme Leader himself, have made claims to state leaders – including Biden, Macron, and Scholz – that China is willing to use its closeness to the Kremlin to convince them not to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

But while these proclamations appear on the readouts of their meetings, they are absent in the Chinese-language versions. More importantly, there’s no evidence that Xi’s banalities have extended into action with Putin, or will do so in future.

Therein lies the crux of the matter – China wants to appear, rhetorically, as distant from Russia’s war and Putin’s politics. But practically – economically – they continue to support Moscow.

Why is China engaging in this rhetoric?

Essentially, Xi wants to play both sides and come out of this crisis on top. It’s a tried-and-true strategy that China has engaged in in the past – to great success.

During the Cold War, China was able to extract concessions from both the Soviet Union and the US, playing the two superpowers off one another.

Today, however, Beijing recognises that throwing Putin under the bus won’t do much to repair their relationship with the US. Sino-American tensions are rooted in trade conflicts and the Taiwan issue.

Alexander Gabuev, expert on Russian relations and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment, writes astutely on China’s double-game.

But Europe is another matter. The EU is already struggling with the consequences of cutting economic ties with Russia, with a gas crisis in full swing and fears of economic recession looming. Risking another break with an even bigger economic partner is the last thing the bloc wants.

China knows this, and Xi has long been keen to expand his influence in Europe. Badmouthing Putin to curry favour with the EU is a small price to pay. Time will tell if Xi is willing to cough up more expensive actions to follow suit – but it doesn’t seem likely.

Cover image by Пресс-служба Президента Российской Федерации, licensed under CC BY 4.0.

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