China's reaction to the Ukrainian crisis has already been ambiguous. Recently, it abstained from voting for a US-backed resolution at the United Nations Security Council. At the same time, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang said China always respected all countries' sovereignty and territorial integrity.
In a media interaction, American National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has warned Beijing against helping Moscow evade the sanctions the US has slapped against Russia in the wake of the Ukrainian crisis. Sullivan said, "We have communicated to Beijing that we will not stand by and allow any country to compensate Russia for its losses from the economic sanctions." Will Beijing heed Washington?
Observers say the United States and its allies have slapped unprecedented sanctions against Russia. They have called for revoking its "most favoured nation" trade status. It is highly unlikely that China would do anything that might damage its relations with Russia. Unlike Washington and its allies, Beijing has refused to use the word 'invasion' to describe the present Ukrainian conflict. In a recent press conference, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi accused the US of causing the ongoing Ukrainian crisis through NATO's eastward expansion.
Trade accounts for about 46% of Russia's economy today. China accounts for much of it. China-Russia trade stood at more than $145 billion in 2021. China holds 14% of Russia's forex reserves. Russia has been Beijing's biggest recipient of loans from official sector institutions.
Recently, Russia's Gazprom and China's CNPC signed a 25-year deal on a new gas supply route (the Power of Siberia pipeline). Rosneft agreed to supply CNPC with 100 million tonnes of oil (via Kazakhstan) over the next ten years.
So far, Beijing has helped Moscow to circumvent the Western sanctions. The other day Wang told his German counterpart Annalena Baerbock that China disapproved of using sanctions to solve problems and rejected unilateral sanctions.
It would, however, be naïve to take China's present bonhomie with Russia for granted. Communist China has had an aggressive "Middle Kingdom" complex in its diplomacy. Chinese supremo Mao Zedong cultivated Washington during the Nixon presidency to advance this imperialistic goal. The China-US bonhomie has flourished ever since, notwithstanding some occasional setbacks in their relations.
Since Mao's successor Deng Xiaoping's time, Beijing's focus has been on boosting its economy. China is the closest trading partner of the US. China looks to the US for certain technologies. Some Chinese state banks are already blocking financing Russian oil sales.
Interestingly, China's reaction to the Ukrainian crisis has already been ambiguous. Recently, it abstained from voting for a US-backed resolution at the United Nations Security Council. At the same time, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang said that China always respected all countries' sovereignty and territorial integrity. In a recent talk with his Ukrainian counterpart Dymytro Kuleba, Wang assured him "of China's readiness to make every effort to end the war on Ukrainian soil through diplomacy".
Not long ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping threw his weight behind his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin's opposition against NATO expansion. But the other day, after his virtual meeting with German chancellor Olaf Scholz and French president Emmanuel Macron, he called for "maximum restraint."
(The author is a New Delhi-based journalist)