Closer ties with Moscow carry rising risk for Beijing

February 28, 2024 06:00

The background is a snow-covered field in east Ukraine whose trees and vegetation has been destroyed. Speaking to the camera is a Chinese in a Russian army uniform, tears in his eyes.

“I am going to die, please help,” he says. “I am wounded but there is no medical help here. No-one is taking care of me. I called the embassy who told me that it was my decision to come here. They did not help. I am appealing to anyone who can help me.”

This Youtube segment was one of many shocking videos that appear every day from Russia’s invasion of its neighbour and one of the few to involve a Chinese. He did not explain why he wished to kill people whom he does not know and who have no quarrel with him.

The video shows the rising risk for China as the invasion enters its third year. As Western hatred of Russia intensifies and its determination to make Vladimir Putin fail, so does China’s embrace of him grow tighter.

On February 8, Putin and Xi Jinping exchanged a Lunar New Year telephone call. “We have booming trade, active exchanges and should have ever-closer strategic collaboration,” Xi told his friend. He is the only major world leader on such good terms with Putin.

Last Wednesday, in a speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Yulia, widow of Alexei Navalny, said that the Russian government, led by Putin, had orchestrated the killing of her husband Alexei in a Siberian penal colony 12 days earlier. Moscow has not given a cause of death.

“The public murder has once again shown everyone that Putin is capable of anything and that you cannot negotiate with him,” Yulia said.

The government and the people of the West agree with her that Putin ordered Navalny’s murder. They added it to the thousands of war crimes he and his army have committed in Ukraine.

Last Monday 25 European leaders met in Paris to underscore their resolve to help Ukraine. French President Emmanuel Macron said that Russia’s defeat was necessary to ensure “Europe’s collective security”, “We will do everything needed so Russia cannot win the war,” he said.

Despite this intense anger, Beijing has decided to move ever closer to Russia.

No country has benefitted more economically from the two-year war. In 2023, China’s trade with Russia reached a record US$240 billion, 26.3 per cent more than in 2022 and 36 per cent than its trade with the United States in the same period.

China’s exports of cars in 2023 grew fivefold to 800,000, accounting for 20 per cent of its total vehicle exports. They are replacing European, Japanese and Korean brands that were the choice of Russians before the invasion.

China imported 79.8 million metric tonnes of crude oil from Russia in the first 11 months of 2023, up 22.2 per cent on a year earlier. Traders say that Chinese firms receive discounts because Russia has lost its markets in Europe and North America.

Russian Central Bank Governor Elvira Nabiullina said last month that the share of the renminbi in Russia’s exports reached 34.5 per cent in 2023, up from 0.4 per cent in 2021, and its share in Russia’s imports had risen to 36.4 per cent from 4.3 per cent in the same period.

Beijing insists that it has not supplied lethal weapons to Russia and denies supporting its war effort. But this is increasingly hard to believe, as Russia is importing large amounts of war material from Iran and North Korea to make up for shortfalls in domestic production.

Chinese oil, machinery, cars, machinery and consumer goods greatly help Russia to withstand Western sanctions. Many of these Chinese imports are dual use, for military as well as civilian use.
Items essential to Moscow’s military industries are high-precision “computer numerical control” (CNC) devices, which permit extremely precise metal milling. Russian customs returns show Chinese producers shipped $68 million worth of CNC tools in July 2023, the latest verifiable figure available, up from just $6.5million in February 2022 when Moscow launched its full-scale invasion.

There are no figures on the number of Chinese volunteers fighting for Putin in the war. In December 2023, Zhao Rong, 38, from Chongqing posted a message on Twitter from the front line in eastern Ukraine.

“My advice to everyone thinking of coming. ‘Do not come, there is nothing good here,” he wrote in Chinese. “Find a job at home and work hard and earn more money’.” Twitter said that Zhao was killed in the fighting and will never return home.

What happens when the Ukrainian army captures large numbers of Chinese “volunteers”? Where will China’s neutrality be then?

A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.