Conflict in Ukraine highlights deepening ties between Beijing and Moscow

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American and European warnings that Russia is about to invade Ukraine may strike fear in the west, but in China the specter of war has sparked a different reaction.

The Ukraine crisis “will be a historic opportunity for us to resolve the Taiwan issue,” a Chinese nationalist blogger known as Huashan Qiong Jian said last week. The events have weighed heavily on US energy and diverted Washington’s attention from China, the commentator wrote. “The war in Ukraine will be a historic window for the unification of the fatherland that we must not miss.”

Diplomats and longtime observers of Chinese politics reject the idea. But the United States and some of China’s neighbors fear that a war in Ukraine could make an already assertive Beijing even stronger.

“If war breaks out, it will be a huge distraction for the United States. For China, it would be an opportunity of the same magnitude as in 2014,” said Alexander Gabuev, a China expert at the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, referring to the latest Ukraine crisis when Russia backed a separatist movement in the country and annexed Crimea. . This dispute severed Russia’s relations with the West and pushed Moscow into the arms of China. Between 2013 and 2021, China’s share in Russia’s foreign trade doubled, from 10 to 20 percent.

Analysts believe that if the United States and Europe follow through on threats to impose sanctions on Russia if it invades Ukraine again, Moscow will become even more dependent on Beijing.

Chinese chipmakers, which lost business after the United States tightened export controls on cutting-edge semiconductor manufacturing technology, could still supply Russia with chips from a capacity of traditional but advanced production, Gabuev said. If European companies, such as telecommunications groups Ericsson and Nokia, were to stop working with Russia for political reasons, its Chinese rival Huawei would be the biggest beneficiary, he added.

But the most important questions hanging over China’s potential role in a conflict in Ukraine concern its political and military partnership with Russia.

Chinese, Russian and Iranian naval forces during joint exercises in the Indian Ocean this month, an example of growing military cooperation between Beijing and Moscow © Iranian Army Office/AFP/Getty

Although the two countries insist they are not in an alliance, military collaboration in some areas has reached a level that rivals that between traditional allies.

“There is no ceiling to the development of our relations, no limit,” said Zhao Mingwen, a former Chinese diplomat and expert on Russia today at the China Institute of International Studies, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ think tank. Foreign Affairs. “That leaves a lot of room for the imagination of our Western friends. One could say that we are even more allies than allies.

Zhao added that Russia and China will support each other in conflicts they see as being caused by outside powers. “If China were forced to unify Taiwan by force and the United States intervened, I don’t think Russia would sit idly by,” he said.

Russia was being forced to act against Ukraine by the United States and Europe which had “constricted its strategic space too tightly”, Zhao added.

Beijing backed Russia with a statement reflecting that position. Russia’s “reasonable security concerns should be taken seriously and addressed,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told US Secretary of State Antony Blinken last Thursday. Wang added that security in Europe could not be guaranteed by “strengthening or even expanding military blocs”, an apparent reference to Moscow’s demand for a guarantee that NATO does not accept more members in Eastern Europe.

If Russia sought Chinese support in a war in Ukraine, Beijing might be able to help.

Alexander Korolev, an expert on Russian-Chinese security relations at the University of New South Wales, said increasingly frequent and substantial joint exercises, collaboration on weapons development, regular consultations on Military and security issues and longstanding military personnel exchanges allow the two armies to operate jointly in real wars.

“They have introduced a joint command system, there are codes and signals that Chinese and Russian forces can read, and intelligence is exchanged between the two frequently,” he said.

The two militaries would likely help each other with the space infrastructure needed to track enemy missiles and guide their own command, communications and targeting systems, analysts said.

“China is able to have ground radar stations in Russia and Russia in China, and that extends their footprint significantly,” said Mark Hilborne, a defense expert at King’s College London.

Additionally, the two countries are seeking to link Glonass and Beidou, their global navigation satellite systems, which would give Moscow and Beijing more satellites than the United States with GPS.

“Russia doesn’t have any significant commercial operations for Glonass that the military could turn to for reinforcement. So if its systems were overwhelmed or its satellites were compromised in a conflict, it could get help from China,” Hilborne said.

Many observers doubt that it will come to that. Although China and Russia have pushed back against the superpower status of the United States, they have been more cautious in regional or national issues.

“Neither China nor Russia would make outrageously bold moves in areas where the other side has priority interests, nor do they support the other’s most contentious territorial claims,” ​​Korolev said. “That’s what happened in the previous Ukrainian crisis and in the Georgian war in 2008. China didn’t say much but carried on as if nothing had happened.

Moscow and Beijing support each other the most when they share the goal of countering the United States, he added.

If China sees the Ukraine crisis as part of this global struggle, it could exploit it to erode US power, although observers have said Beijing will not attack Taiwan.

A Ukrainian diplomat in Asia said he expected Beijing to step up its efforts to undermine Japanese interests, for example by increasing the number of vessels its coastguard uses to patrol the waters around the Senkaku Islands or Diaoyu challenged.

Japanese experts also fear that China could launch more cyberattacks on soft targets in Japan.

Additional reporting by Maiqi Ding in Beijing

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