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China's strategic tilt: Choosing Russia over the US

June 14, 2024 at 12:03 pm

The main road is decorated with five-star red flags in Chongqing, China, September 23, 2023 [Costfoto/NurPhoto via Getty Images]

In the delicate dance of global diplomacy, recent high-level meetings have unveiled a geopolitical pivot in the making. While China preferred to remain neutral in the conflict between the United States and Russia, Beijing has lately made steps that could be interpreted as a strategic lean towards Moscow.

For example, when Antony Blinken pressed China on its support for Russia’s actions in Ukraine, a chilly atmosphere pervaded the room, overshadowed by accusations and tensions. Meanwhile, a markedly warmer exchange ensued between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, emphasising a united front against Western pressure. This shift, from the frigid exchanges of the Blinken-Xi dialogue to the camaraderie of the Putin-Xi meeting, signals more than just a preference—it hints at a potential seismic realignment in global power dynamics.

The Blinken-Xi meeting in late April 2024 was an exercise in high-stakes diplomacy. Blinken’s primary agenda was to persuade China to curtail its support for Russia’s military efforts in Ukraine. He argued that such support conflicts with China’s broader interests, particularly its desire for stronger relations with European nations that view Russia as a significant threat. The meeting addressed numerous contentious issues, including China’s aggressive posture towards Taiwan, maritime disputes in the South China Sea and human rights concerns. Blinken emphasised the importance of open communication to avoid misunderstandings and miscalculations, underscoring the Biden administration’s commitment to direct, face-to-face diplomacy.

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Despite these efforts, the atmosphere was tense, with China issuing press statements accusing the United States of undermining its development and sovereignty. This harsh rhetoric was mirrored by China’s foreign ministry, which criticised the US for what it perceived as hypocritical behaviour – highlighting American support for Ukraine while condemning Chinese trade with Russia.

The subsequent summit between Putin and Xi contrasted starkly with the Blinken-Xi dialogue. The meeting took place in a warm and cooperative environment, marked by a reaffirmation of the strong Sino-Russian partnership. Discussions focused on expanding economic and military cooperation, with Xi and Putin underscoring their united front against Western sanctions and policies. The meeting highlighted a deepening of strategic ties, with concrete steps to enhance cooperation, including agreements on economic collaboration and military support. This warmth and camaraderie were at odds with the tension of the Blinken-Xi dialogue, underscoring China’s preference for Russia as a strategic partner.

China’s strategic tilt towards Russia could bear significant implications for global geopolitics. This shift would pave the way to a more polarised world order, with distinct Western and Sino-Russian blocs emerging. The strengthening of Sino-Russian ties is likely to embolden both nations to pursue more assertive policies, challenging US influence and interests globally.

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This development complicates the US efforts to address global challenges collaboratively. The strained relations between Washington and Beijing are likely to persist, making it difficult to find common ground on critical issues such as climate change, global health and economic stability. Moreover, China’s support for Russia undermines international efforts to isolate Moscow and curtail its aggression in Ukraine.

A significant factor in this dynamic is America’s strategy of creating adversaries to solidify its superpower status. Under the Trump administration, China was cast as the principal adversary, a role now assumed by Russia under Biden, particularly due to the Ukraine-Russia conflict.

This adversarial stance has inadvertently pushed China and Russia closer, as evidenced by their recent high-level meetings. When Western experts assessed China’s military capabilities, they emphasised their lack of active combat experience and the quality problems in their inventory. However, the ongoing conflict in Ukraine has demonstrated that quantity can triumph over quality. Russia’s seemingly endless Soviet-era inventory is beginning to outweigh the limited but high-quality equipment that Ukraine has received from Western nations. Considering China’s vast and largely unknown inventory and production capacity, its intervention in any conflict zone could significantly challenge Western powers.

Russian opposition leader, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, provides further insight into the dynamics of the Putin-Xi relationship. Putin’s delegation to Beijing included top officials and oligarchs, symbolising the importance of the visit. Although the publicised agreements between Russia and China were minor, such as those regarding supplies of artichokes and beef offal, the real significance lay in off-the-books deals. British intelligence suggests China agreed to provide weapons to Russia, reinforcing the “no limits” partnership declared in 2022. This covert support underscores China’s role in sustaining Putin’s war effort and blunting the impact of Western sanctions. The trade relationship, heavily favouring China, highlights how Beijing benefits disproportionately from this alliance.

Senior research fellow on China, Dr Yu Jie, however notes that while China’s alignment with Russia is uneasy, it is driven by strategic necessity in its rivalry with the US. The latest joint communique from Beijing and Moscow criticised Washington and emphasised their “confluence of interests,” but omitted the “no limits” partnership, reflecting China’s cautious approach.

Despite the contradictions in its stance on Ukraine, Beijing prioritises its long-term struggle with the US over other considerations. Russia’s role as China’s largest oil supplier and a market for high-end Chinese products illustrates the economic underpinnings of their relationship. Additionally, China’s efforts to forge global partnerships and strengthen ties with the Global South further highlight its strategy to counterbalance US influence.

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Looking ahead, the deepening of Sino-Russian ties may have far-reaching consequences. A more assertive China, backed by Russia, could pose a significant challenge to the existing international order. This partnership may also influence other nations, particularly in Asia and Europe, to reassess their alliances and strategies.

The recent meetings between Blinken and Xi and between Putin and Xi underscore China’s strategic choices in the current geopolitical climate. While the US continues to seek avenues for dialogue and cooperation, China is prioritising its relationship with Russia. As the world navigates this new era of alliances, China’s actions and decisions will play a critical role in shaping the future of international relations.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.