Russia and China are positioned as strategic partners at the highest level. In the face of sanctions pressure and the severance of economic ties with Western partners, many people in Russia count on China's unconditional support. Meanwhile, China's attitude to the current affairs is much less unambiguous than it seems at first glance.
Chinese policy after February 24 somewhat resembles the approach of the PRC after the annexation of the Crimea and the conflict in the Donbass, writes Alexander Gabuyev, an expert at the Carnegie Endowment. This approach is characterized primarily by careful maneuvering and refusal to openly support one of the parties to the conflict.
"In conversations with Ukrainian and Western politicians, representatives of the PRC insist that they stand for peace, learned about the beginning of the operation from the news, support the territorial integrity and sovereignty of Ukraine, and also do not recognize the DPR with the LPR and do not consider Crimea as Russian territory. In communication with Russian colleagues, Chinese leaders say that they do not support unilateral sanctions against the Russian Federation, and also criticize the expansion of military alliances led by the United States in Europe and Asia," Gabuyev writes.
China adheres to the same position regarding sanctions. The PRC cooperates with Russia where it is not prohibited, and actively buys Russian energy carriers and other raw materials, taking advantage of a significant discount. At the same time, China is trying not to interact with Russia in those areas where there is a risk of falling under sanctions. As a result, doing business with China has become extremely problematic.
Chinese support for Russia is seen as much more symbolic than practical. Both countries share a vision of the system of international relations and criticize the "Western hegemony". In addition, both countries are extremely sensitive to ideas about the need to reform the UN system, being permanent members of the UN Security Council.
The Chinese position on the "military operation" (unlike Western countries, the Chinese share the Russian official wording) is not so much pro-Russian as anti-American and anti-Western. "For Beijing, the crisis in Ukraine is just another reason to tell fellow citizens about the destructive role of America," Gabuyev writes.
At the same time, in the current circumstances, China will not neglect relations with its main trading partner, the United States. Despite the rhetoric, China has stopped supplying spare parts for Boeing and Airbus aircraft to Russia, cooperating with sub-sanctioned banks, as well as selling equipment for telecommunication technologies.
"From the point of view of the US Treasury, it is often easier to refuse to cooperate with Russian counterparties than to hire expensive specialists who are able to distinguish a "good" Russian from a "bad" one," Gabuyev writes.
According to the expert's forecast, China will continue its cautious course while the active phase of the "military operation" is underway and new sanctions are also being actively introduced. The upcoming midterm election to the US Congress also affects the decision on political pressure on China and India in order to limit their relations with Russia. While the contours of the new reality remain unclear, any change in China's course to "strategic caution" is unlikely to happen. All this, of course, will be accompanied by the rhetoric of unconditional support for Russia.