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The Sino-Russian alliance only thrives in the company of a common enemy

China has been silent about Russia’s military invasion of Ukraine, which is a clear violation of Russia’s national sovereignty.

Chinese diplomats also abstained in a UN General Assembly vote aimed at censuring Russia. Qin Gang, China’s ambassador to the United States, defended Russia, saying censoring it “doesn’t solve the problem”.

Beijing has also criticized economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States, Japan and Europe. Between the years 2000 and 2013, China and Ukraine issued four joint communiqués. In each of them, China pledged to respect “the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Ukraine. This makes China’s current silence on the war in Ukraine a remarkable betrayal.

Facing outrage and opposition from the rest of the world, China has since tried to signal its “neutrality”. The Chinese government has voluntarily announced that the Ukrainian side has asked it to negotiate a ceasefire and supports this goal. Yet Chinese President Xi Jinping was evasive when US President Joe Biden asked him in a recent video call to refrain from providing Russia with economic or military assistance.

The February 4 joint statement issued by China and Russia after the Xi-Putin summit, held ahead of the Winter Olympics, includes the following sentence: “The Chinese side supports the proposals put forward by the Russian Federation to create long-term legally binding security guarantees in Europe. This is a reference to Ukraine, although the country is not mentioned by name.

While Russia would likely have preferred to nominate Ukraine, China may have been reluctant to offer more than blanket endorsement of Russia’s grievances.

Was Xi caught off guard by the Russian invasion? He also didn’t think Putin would start an all-out war against Ukraine. There are intelligence reports to this effect: Prior to the invasion, a senior Chinese official reportedly told a senior official in a third country that he did not believe Russia would actually invade. If this report is true, Xi must be ashamed of his ignorance. If, on the other hand, the Chinese leader knew of Putin’s intentions but claims otherwise, he is all the more complicit in Russia’s crimes.

In any case, we must recognize that the relationship between Xi’s China and Putin’s Russia has turned into a “strategic understanding”. The recent joint declaration, which advocates “unlimited friendship between the two States”, is a true historical document which announces this new relationship. Indeed, Xi described the Sino-Russian relationship as one that “surpasses even an alliance in its closeness and effectiveness.” This understanding clearly underlies the joint statement’s reference to “a cooperative relationship with no upper limit”.

The joint statement also confirmed that China and Russia:

  • Oppose any further NATO enlargement.
  • To oppose the “formation of structures of closed blocs and opposing camps in the Asia-Pacific region”.
  • Have “serious concerns” about the establishment of the AUKUS trilateral security partnership, which “provides for deeper cooperation between its members in areas involving strategic stability, in particular… cooperation in the field of submarines nuclear-powered.
  • Resist “attempts to deny, distort and falsify the history of World War II” and “strongly condemn actions that…tarnish and tarnish the honor of victorious countries”.
  • To oppose “attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions”, “interference by external forces in the internal affairs of sovereign countries under any pretext” and “revolutions of color”.

The Sino-Russian joint declaration is really a long succession of “oppositions”. China and Russia were both members of the Allied Powers during World War II – in other words, they were among the “victorious countries”. From this sacred position, in order “to prevent the tragedy of the world war from happening again”, they “strongly condemn the actions… (which) sully and tarnish the honor” of the victors of the war. We can understand this line as an endorsement of Putin’s reading of history, which justifies Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as an effort to defend the Russian homeland against Nazism.

Nevertheless, the Sino-Russian relationship is shackled by the murky ties of history and geography. The mutual mistrust runs deep. The Sino-Soviet alliance became meaningless after the two communist countries split in the late 1950s. In the early 1970s, China turned to the United States, and in the 1980s the two countries adopted a united front against Soviet hegemony. Then the Soviet Union collapsed.

Some Chinese foreign policy and security experts examine the Russian quagmire in Ukraine and argue that the war should be allowed to continue indefinitely. They argue that it is in China’s interest to allow the “great powers of the past” (US, Europe, Russia) to waste their remaining power on a war of attrition. China and Russia still do not trust each other; but they are even more suspicious of the United States. That’s why they need each other. They also share the same ideas in that they both represent proud nations that deeply resent past national humiliations. They are also two nuclear powers with a realpolitik approach to international relations.

Apparently, China’s Russian hands have a saying: “China and Russia can share bitter experiences, but not happy ones.” In other words, it is only in the face of a common enemy that the two countries can form, out of convenience, a united front. Sharing only malevolent resentment towards the West and democratic states and warped by Russia’s reliance on China, the Sino-Russian alliance is not “sweet” but “sour”. Today we are witnessing the emergence of this “extra sour” Sino-Russian bloc on the world stage.

Yoichi Funabashi is chairman of the Asia-Pacific Initiative and former editor of the Asahi Shimbun. This is a translation of his column in the monthly Bungei Shunju.

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