There are mistakes, catastrophic mistakes, and Vladimir Putin’s disastrous invasion of Ukraine. Russia’s unprovoked onslaught against its smaller and supposedly weaker neighbour will surely be seen as one of the greatest foreign policy errors in human history.
The news that Russia has been forced to appeal to China for military and economic assistance, has finally ripped away the camouflage behind which it has been masquerading for years as an economic and military superpower. Unable to sustain for three weeks a conflict which he initiated, apparently with overwhelming force, Putin has had to call China’s Xi Jinping for help.
Bogged down in an unwinnable war, Russia is confronted by stubborn resistance from Ukrainian forces, massive logistical problems in resupplying an overstretched army ill-prepared for combat and suffering substantial losses, and crippling economic sanctions that threaten to sink a hollowed-out Russian economy in weeks.
How will China respond to Russian calls for assistance?
The Russian and Chinese leaders met in Beijing on 4 February to conclude a gas supply deal, but there is evidence that the decision to wage war on Ukraine had already been taken on 18 January. Much will now depend on what Putin told President Xi about the conflict and what assurances were given on both sides.
The question is, how will China respond?
An answer that seems plausible has appeared in the US-China Perception Monitor, a not-for-profit publication exploring US-China relations and operated by the Carter Centre, founded by former US president Jimmy Carter.
The article – ‘Possible Outcomes of the Russo-Ukrainian War and China’s Choice‘ – is by Professor Hu Wei, chair of the Shanghai Public Policy Research Association, and of the academic committee of the Chahar Institute.
He describes the war as “an irreversible mistake” and says that Russian cannot win even if it succeeds militarily. Hopes of a victory are “slim” and “Western sanctions have reached an unprecedented degree”. Hu says as anti-war and anti-Putin forces gather, “the possibility of a political mutiny in Russia cannot be ruled out”.
Why China should refuse
The professor sets out a number of compelling reasons why China should refuse assistance.
Firstly, China cannot be tied to Putin. While China would normally be expected to rejoice at any conflict between Russian and the West, this is “only if Russia does not fall”. But, unless Putin can “secure victory with China’s backing, a prospect which looks bleak at the moment, China does not have the clout to back Russia”.
Secondly, China has nothing to gain by maintaining neutrality and should “choose the mainstream position in the world”. Trying not to offend either side doesn’t help Russia, infuriates Ukraine, and alienates its international supporters and sympathisers, “putting China on the wrong side of much of the world”.
Thirdly, China should improve its international image and ease relations with the US and the West more generally. China’s top priority should be focused on changing America’s hostile attitudes towards it, and to save itself from isolation. The bottom line, he says, “is to prevent the US and the West from imposing joint sanctions on China”.
China is the only country that can stop the war escalating
Finally, if Russia was to initiate a world war, or worse a nuclear war, it will surely risk the world’s turmoil, Hu warns. Therefore, China not only cannot stand with Putin, “but also should take concrete actions to prevent Putin’s possible adventures. China is the only country in the world with this capability, and it must give full play to this unique advantage”.
He believes that if China refuses to support Putin, it will most likely end the war, or at least not escalate it. In this way, China may help prevent its own isolation as well as improving relations with the United States and the West.
Beijing may not need much persuading with Bloomberg reporting that Chinese stocks listed in Hong Kong had their worst day today since the 2008 global financial crisis, after concerns over Beijing’s close relationship with Russia sparked panic selling. The Hang Seng China Enterprises Index closed down 7.2 per cent on the day, the biggest drop since November 2008. The Hang Sang Tech Index fell 11 per cent, its biggest decline since being launched in July 2020, wiping out $2.1 trillion in value since reaching its peak last year.
In February, Chinese state television quoted Putin saying, “I have known President Xi Jinping for a long time, as good friends and politicians who share many common views on solving world problems, we have always maintained close communication”.
In turn, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi called Russia’s security concerns “legitimate”, saying they should be “taken seriously and addressed”.
Three weeks of bitter fighting and rising civilian casualties across Ukraine have altered perceptions in China. Putin’s fate may yet be decided in Beijing more than Washington and Brussels.
The FT are reporting the US is advising allies that China has responded positively to Russia’s request: