China will pay high price for supporting Putin’s invasion

March 24, 2022 06:00
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing. Photo: Reuters

The longer Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine goes on, the higher economic and diplomatic price China will have to pay for supporting him.

On March 16, at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the Chinese judge voted with the Russian judge against an order, passed 13-2, to Russia “to immediately suspend its military operations in Ukraine.”

The Chinese media does not use the words “war” or “invasion”, only the Russian wording of “special military operation in Ukraine”.

This support is the result of an unprecedented joint declaration signed by Putin and President Xi Jinping on February 4 during the former’s visit to Beijing ahead of the Winter Olympics. This is part of the declaration, on the Kremlin’s website:

“The new inter-State relations between Russia and China are superior to political and military alliances of the Cold War era. Friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation, strengthening of bilateral strategic cooperation is neither aimed against third countries nor affected by the changing international environment and circumstantial changes in third countries.” In the 1950s, China never signed such an agreement with the Soviet Union.

Opinion within China is far from unanimous, according to Hu Wei, vice-chairman of the Public Policy Research Centre of the Counselor’s Office of the State Council, in an article written on March 5 and published in English by the U.S.-China Perception Monitor.

“Russia’s ‘special military operation’ against Ukraine has caused great controversy in China, with its supporters and opponents being divided into two implacably opposing sides,” he wrote.

“This military action constitutes an irreversible mistake … The hope of Russia’s victory is slim and Western sanctions have reached an unprecedented degree … China cannot be tied to Putin and needs to be cut off as soon as possible … It must unload the burden of Russia as soon as possible. It should give up being neutral and choose the mainstream position in the world,” he wrote.

In this way, China can save itself from isolation and prevent the U.S. and the West from imposing joint sanctions against it, he wrote. His Chinese-language article was deleted from the Internet within an hour after being posted.

Fearful of such a fall-out, Chinese banks and companies have become cautious in dealing with Russian firms subject to the Western sanctions.

Mykhailo Fedorov, Vice Prime Minister of Ukraine, wrote an open letter to DJI, China’s top manufacturer of drones, asking it to stop doing business in Russia “until the Russian aggression in Ukraine is fully stopped. “Russian troops are using DJI products in Ukraine to navigate their missiles to kill civilians,” he said. DJI has also sold its products to Ukraine.

In recent months, foreign investors have dumped a significant amount of Chinese shares. One major reason is the fear that the West will sanction China for its support for Putin’s war.

China’s economy is far more vulnerable than that of Russia to such sanctions, with a larger and more diverse foreign trade and dependence on imports of many commodities, including oil, minerals and foodstuffs.

In a two-hour conversation with President Xi last Friday, President Joe Biden warned that China would pay a heavy price if it provides material supports to Russia in its attack on Ukraine. Diplomats say that Moscow has asked for Chinese drones – efficient and cheap – and chips for its military units.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, research professor of Political Science at Baptist University, said that Xi has probably been informed by Putin about a possible invasion but Putin may have told him that it was one option among several and that it would be a quick intervention, a kind of blitzkrieg, that would compel Ukraine to rapidly make concessions without causing too many negative economic consequences.

During the call, Xi criticised the sanctions against Moscow. “Sweeping and indiscriminate sanctions would only make the people suffer. If further escalated, they would trigger serious crises in global economy and trade, finance, energy, food and industrial and supply chains,” he said.

On Saturday, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that China’s position on Ukraine was “objective and fair” and time would prove it was “on the right side of history.”

Jude Blanchette, Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said that “the intensifying war in Ukraine has prompted calls for Taiwan to improve its defense capabilities and has given security partnerships such as NATO, the Quad and AUKUS a renewed sense of purpose.

“Early signs indicate that Putin’s military advisers misled him about the true state of the Ukrainian army.” Xi may fall into the same trap of inaccurate information and advice. “Xi will increasingly be surrounded by younger, more inexperienced and more pliant senior leaders. What Xi needs is a team of rivals. What he has now and will likely have in the future is a group of yes men.”

China’s relations with the European Union are also in the balance. An EU-China Summit will be held on April 1, the first since the outbreak of the war. The Ukraine invasion will be a leading item on the agenda. This is a “defining moment” in EU-China relations for decades to come, diplomats said. In Europe, government and public support for Ukraine and loathing of Russia are intense.

Russian companies are facing not only international sanctions but also the opprobrium of consumers in most countries in the world. A reduction in sales, or even boycott, of Russian goods is likely.

The risk for Chinese goods is even higher. As the factory of the world, it is the number one producer of consumer goods. If these consumers see China as complicit in Russia’s war crimes, they may decide not to buy Chinese goods as well.

The governments of China’s largest export markets – the EU, the U.S. and Japan – are all imposing sanctions against Russia and public opinion in these countries is strongly pro-Ukraine.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.