Europe’s newfound unity poses questions to Beijing-Moscow axis

Giannis Seferiadis
6 min readApr 1, 2022

Giannis Seferiadis

The Russian invasion to Ukraine has placed China in a difficult position as Beijing struggles to balance its stance to protect its economic and strategic interests.

The strong Western reaction to the invasion puts Beijing at odds with the Europeans, as its relations with the EU are clearly more important than its bond with Russia.

Beijing has refused to condemn the invasion by its close partner Russia, and Xi said he wanted “the two sides to maintain the momentum of negotiations, overcome difficulties and continue the talks to achieve results”, according to Chinese state broadcaster CCTV.

“Whether it sides with Russia or not, China will pay a price” was the title of an Op-Ed to Los Angeles Times of Minxin Pei, a Chinese-American political scientist.

The European Union has taken unprecedented steps after Russia’s President Vladimir Putin launched a war on neighboring Ukraine.

“The ties between Moscow and Beijing are deep even though China abstained from the vote in the UN General Assembly.“, said in a short statement David McAllister, Chair of the European Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee .

White House spokesperson Jen Psaki said that the United States has means to “take steps” against China if Beijing does not abide by the sanctions on Russia amid the conflict in Ukraine.

The relationship between Russia and China is marked by its independence of the negative influence of third sides, Foreign Minister of the People’s Republic of China Wang Yi told a press conference on Monday.

Minister Wang Yi refused to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and even celebrated a “rock-solid” friendship with Moscow. He again pleaded for “legitimate (Moscow’s) security concerns”.

China only called Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a “war” for the first time after at least 16 days of crisis in eastern Europe, rejecting the term “invasion”.

A United States defence official has said that “Ukraine is an example for how to defend Taiwan if China violates its sovereignty” as the Ukrainian army continues to resist Russian military aggression, now for 16 days.

In the first call after the Russian invasion Washington’s top diplomat Antony Blinken pressed his counterpart in Beijing over China’s continued refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“Thinking back, Chinese policy-makers should not have been taken by surprise. Ironically, they were informed about Russia’s imminent invasion in Ukraine by their archrival, the US. And, yet, Beijing dismissed this intelligence, only to find out it had been deceived — or misled, at best — by its partner, Russia!” Plamen Tonchev, Head of Asia Unit, Institute of International Economic Relations (IIER) said.

“Interestingly, while the 4 February Sino-Russian joint statement is a lengthy document that covers a long list of issues, the name Ukraine is not mentioned in the text — not once! I would say that China sees this statement as a joint manifesto and does not have second thoughts about the main tenets in it, including the reference to Russia’s security concerns. But Beijing seems to have felt uncomfortable with the Ukraine issue, hence the lack of a specific reference to it in the text.

Yet, precisely because China focuses on the “big picture” and its strategic partnership with Russia, the war in Ukraine — embarrassing as it may be for Zhongnanhai — is unlikely to disrupt the bond between Beijing and Moscow.

In Tonchev’s view, “there may be two factors that Beijing cannot neglect — the damage to its international reputation and serious economic instability on a global scale”.

Helena Legarda, Lead Analyst, at Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS), told Nikkei that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put China in a difficult position. “Beijing and Moscow’s positions may align when it comes to their wish to reshape the current global order and their mutual dislike of the US and NATO, but it remains to be seen whether this alignment will be enough to lead to willingness in Beijing to break down its ties with the West over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Europe and the US are, after all, much more important economic partners for China than Russia”, she said.

China would most likely be hit by sanctions and by a rapid deterioration of relations with the West if it openly supported Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, or if it was deemed to be actively enabling it. But even if Beijing continues down the current path of rhetorically presenting an image of neutrality while tacitly supporting Moscow’s position, this will add another layer of tension to already strained EU-China and US-China relations.

Ivana Karásková, Founder and Leader of MapInfluenCE and China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe (CHOICE) told Nikkei that over the past week, we have witnessed a sweeping change from previously hesitant position of European institutions and governments to demonstrating moral, financial and security support of Ukraine. The new-found unity and unwillingness of their allies to block decision-making at the EU level may have come as a surprise for both Moscow and Beijing and would force them to re-assess assumptions on EU foreign and security policy in the future. Specifically, on EU’s possible reactions in economic and security spheres to a blatant invasion.

“I don’t buy the narrative that Putin misled Xi. On Feb. 4, Putin probably believed that he could achieve his objectives with a small military operation. Beijing was probably not surprised by the initial invasion, but didn’t expect it would become a large scale operation. The fact that China told their citizens in Ukraine to stay in place and put a PRC flag on their cars provides evidence that they didn’t believe they would be at risk” told Bonnie S. Glaser is director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

China’s “pro-Russia” neutrality is based on due to two factors: 1) its long-standing support for territorial integrity and sovereignty, which includes Ukraine; and 2) the need for Beijing to preserve its ties with the West because of its reliance on the US and other advanced countries for technology, he adds.

“Russia’s operation has put China in an ambiguous position” Sergey Galani, 53, Russian historian, publicist told.

“China has traditionally advocated respect for the sovereignty of all countries, which also includes Ukraine. On the other hand, China stated that it understands Russia’s concerns about NATO expansion. It is clear that at the official level we have repeatedly heard that China does not join the sanctions and will not impose any restrictions on trade and economic relations with Russia”, he said.

Beijing is interested in a stable and predictable situation in the world as a whole — it knows well how to function in such conditions and increase its strength. Because the negative trade and economic component can pose a threat to socio-economic stability in China itself and shake the confidence of the population personally in Xi Jinping and the Communist Party.

This is China’s long-term strategy. In this sense, military actions in Ukraine are not beneficial to Beijing. On the other hand, China sympathizes with the Russian idea of a multipolar world and the concept of weakening the West, and partnership with Russia gives it the opportunity to oppose the United States and Europe.

It is clear that pressure from Washington will increase on Beijing now in order for China to limit technological cooperation with Russia, etc. It is possible that separate legal entities will be created that will work only with Russia and that will not be highlighted in any way in activities related to transactions in dollars and euros.

--

--

Giannis Seferiadis

Reporter and International News Editor at Athens News Agency, Efimerida ton Syntakton and Nikkei Asian Review newspapers.