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University of Silesia in Katowice

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Russia under Chinese drip

23.05.2022 - 10:48 update 31.05.2022 - 13:48
Editors: RJ

| Weronika Cygan |

After 1945, there were only two major world powers – the USA and the Soviet Union. The first one has remained an economic hegemon with the PRC hot on its heels. The PRC’s leader is second most influential person in the world. Although still a respectable and economically influential country, Russia is becoming more and more addicted to Chinese support. Tomasz Okraska, PhD of the Faculty of Social Sciences of the University of Silesia was asked about the current war in Ukraine and whether it can strengthen the Middle Kingdom’s position in the world and what can be expected from it regarding European economy and politics.

Weronika Cygan: Shortly after the start of the war of aggression of Russia to Ukraine, the United States and European Union countries started pressuring China to explicitly condemn Russian actions. Can we expect such a reaction from the country where human rights have been actively broken for many years, for example in Xinjiang and Hongkong?

PhD Tomasz Okraska: The West had no right to rely on China to condemn Russia. It was more about persuading the PRC that it should not support Russia too heavily, thus harming the effects of sanctions. The issue is not about the idea, but rather about the extent of the support. It is said that Russia has been on a Chinese drip: realistically since 2014 when the first sanctions hit it after taking over Crimea and starting the hybrid warfare in Donbas. Without any form of cooperation with the PRC, the economic state of the Russian Federation would have been inarguably weaker. The pressure of the West on China needs to be seen in the context of a political narrative as well: to put the Middle Kingdom in an unfavourable situation, especially when the Russian aggression has been condemned by the majority of countries.

Wang Yi, the Minister of Foreign Affairs of the PRC, stated at the end of March that Beijing’s position on the conflict has remained unchanged. And that’s how it is in fact, but it’s also about persistent unclarity and ambiguity. To support Russia, but in such a way that the West cannot have any (major) complaints. Therefore, we have the typical Chinese policy of “Something nice for everyone.” We can only suspect that when Vladimir Putin was in Beijing during this year’s Winter Olympics, he warned Xi Jinping about the possibility of taking up some action in Ukraine. And, possibly, Xi accepted the message. This seems to be confirmed by the first 48 hours since the beginning of the Russian aggression when, according to the plan, everything should have been resolved by then. The Chinese entrusted Putin and were faced with disappointment, due to which the Russian president lost face in their eyes – he no longer was a reliable partner as he had been considered for the past two decades.

W.C.: China is famous for their narration: what it says for the domestic use is often different from what reaches foreign media and diplomats. What is currently being said in Chinese media about the war in Ukraine?

T.O.: The Chinese media represent the government’s position. At first, the Russian propaganda was echoed almost without any exceptions. But when the Chinese noticed that the Russians are not doing so well, the rhetoric has changed. They started to subtly alternate the message, although it is still favourable towards Moscow. Even some Chinese banks have joined imposing the sanctions on Russia in hope not to create losses and give the West an excuse to attack the PRC economically. The rhetorical criticism of Chinese actions by the West is indeed annoying, but Beijing has managed to get used to it in the last years, in different contexts. But when economic loses are the main issue, the Middle Kingdom is much more careful. The Chinese position has evolved then into official neutrality, albeit friendly towards Russia. Beijing is trying to adopt a position which would help to announce that they have been supporting the winner all along, regardless of the future outcome of the conflict.

It’s important to remember that the Chinese narrative is often less directed to the West, and more often intended for the domestic use. The Chinese society is constantly fed with the nationalist, anti-American propaganda and this is why they need to be presented with a more pro-Russian message. Additionally, in Russia there is an autocratic regime, a system which is well familiar to China, and Xi Jinping has developed a very personal relationship with Putin. The Russian president’s loss of face is somewhat of a problem for Xi, who – in line with the Chinese political culture – is not criticised directly in the PRC, but the messages directed at Putin can be understood in such a way: “Look at the result of having too much power in one person’s hands only.”

Over time, the Chinese narrative has gained more and more complaints about the war, however, the blame has been put on the USA. A significant cartoon was published by a party paper “Global Times”, in which an American stands behind the wall and comments on the negotiating Ukrainians and Russians: “Peace? Over my dead body!”

W.C.: How strong are the fundaments of the Chinese-Russian agreement? Historically, the relationship between these two was not always perfect. Even though both countries were communist, during the cold war period their relationship was at a low ebb for many years. Their connection seems to be more forced than natural.

T.O.: In politics there’s this hard-and-fast rule: there are no friends, there is only business. As long as the unofficial alliance with Russia pays off, China is going to stick to that. For at least more than a decade, the PRC’s main strategic priority has been to compete with the US. In this rivalry, it’s Putin’s country that is a valuable partner. Russia provides defence of the Middle Kingdom’s northern borders, raw materials, arms, and other valuable goods; it also has a similar attitude towards the US. In terms of diplomacy, China is not alone in UNSC votes thanks to Moscow, and the roaring of the Russian bear often hides their own domestic actions. It is not a coincidence that since Barack Obama’s presidency the US was coming back to the idea of the so-called “reset” with Russia: to give way in some instances in order to improve the relation and turn Moscow away from China. But this idea has failed.

For China, the war in Ukraine presents both opportunities and threats. Paradoxically, a quick Russian victory that would strengthen Russia would be less beneficial to Beijing than a situation of protracted conflict in which Moscow has suffered heavy losses in many fields. The latter puts its relations with Beijing in an even worse position than before. And this weakness can be ruthlessly exploited by China, as it has been doing since 2014, when the first Western sanctions were imposed on Russia. Back then, knowing that Putin had no choice, the Chinese forced him to lower the price of gas that flows through the Power of Siberia pipeline. Beijing would be most happy to continue strengthening relations and making Russia dependent, while paying it tributes, respecting the Federation’s business in areas that the Chinese have no interest in, at the same time describing it as a great power, which the Russians are wallowing in. The threat, in turn, is the prospect of a crisis in Russia that will lead to Putin being replaced by a politician who is oriented towards lifting Western sanctions, and therefore, potentially less pro-China. Beijing has also been taken aback by the West’s unity in the face of the war and fears that a united US-European front could also go against their interests.

W.C.: How will the war in Ukraine affect China’s Belt and Road Initiative? After all, Europe, including Ukraine, had a significant role to play in it in terms of numerous investments and economic interests.

T.O.: This is another cause of concern for China. The Middle Country, despite its current emphasis on internal consumption, needs to expand its economic influence in the world, and the Belt and Road Initiative is very important for achieving this objective. The idea is to shift more of China’s trade volume from the sea route to the land route. The latter is longer, more expensive, and also exposed to possible hostile action by US or Indian forces against Chinese ships in the event of a possible conflict. China generally cares about international peace and stability to the extent that various conflicts do not impede its business. Meanwhile, leaving aside the relations with Russia, Chinese influence in Ukraine has been compromised in this context, including the idea of treating it as a transit country for transport by the Middle Country, for instance further to Hungary, using the terminal at Fényeslitke. The Russians have offered Beijing to ignore Ukraine altogether and run most of the links through the Federation, but this was not met with enthusiasm in the PRC, which has begun to think more strongly about establishing routes via the south, bypassing both countries. The Belt and Road Initiative is primarily intended to facilitate trade with Europe, which may be losing ground from the Chinese perspective, but that does not mean it should not be exploited economically. The Old Continent countries, on one hand, are tempted by the benefits of the PRC, but on the other, they are becoming increasingly aware of the nature of the Chinese strategy, in which win-win does not mean equal benefits for both partners. China hopes for a divided Europe and to deal with specific countries where it can more easily exploit its advantages. It is also worth noting the abrupt action taken by Beijing against Lithuania when it raised its relations with Taiwan, considered by the PRC to be a rogue province.

W.C.: Xi Jinping is creating a cult of the individual around himself and is moving away from the system established by Deng Xiaoping, which included a two-term rule, and he definitely does not intend to leave the political scene. Can we see a return to the practices of Mao Zedong in his actions?

T.O.: It is said that of the Chinese leaders who ruled after Mao, it is Xi Jinping who has come closest to him in terms of the amount of power he has at the moment. The rule that one person can only govern for two five-year terms is likely to be lifted for him in the autumn. In fact, there is no obvious successor candidate in the PRC today, and the contenders prefer to keep a low profile or are sitting in jail, especially as a consequence of the huge anti-corruption campaign that Xi launched with vigour after taking office. The campaign’s chairman announced the catching of ‘flies and tigers’ – the latter being previously untouchable individuals from the world of politics, business or the military. Although corruption is indeed a problem in China, with this campaign Xi has significantly strengthened his political position, just like Mao once did. This is accompanied by creating a cult of the individual, unseen of with previous leaders. Xi’s idea has already entered the canon of state ideology.

However, an average Chinese is not particularly bothered by the power shuffle and the ideological dilemmas. You could say that there is no Maoism in modern China, only Moneyism and the belief that if you are loyal to the party, it will help you get rich. The hope of the West that the emerging middle class of many hundreds of millions would become the natural vehicle for freedom aspirations has not been fulfilled. The innate desire to multiply wealth, coupled with pride in Chinese achievements and the Chinese Communist Party’s restriction of freedom, is the reason why there are no significant protests against the introduction of an Orwellian Social Credit System in China. Today it is difficult to imagine significant social changes in the PRC, which is also conditioned by the cultural background of the entire Chinese civilisation, which is characterised by loyalty to authority and adaptation rather than a struggle against it. The West likes to refer to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Let us note, however, that since that brutal suppression there have never been any more protests on even a similar scale in China. The party’s “Mandate of Heaven” could be threatened by a serious economic crisis, but this is a scenario that has been prophesied for several decades now, and China, as if out of spite, still refuses to collapse, even though it is, of course, confronted with a multitude of economic, demographic and other problems. With a nationalist orientation of society, economic problems can be blamed on the United States, Japan or whoever suits the rulers in a given situation.

W.C.: Would it be an overstatement to say that, at the moment, there are only two economic powers in the world – the US and China, with Russia acting as China’s satellite country?

T.O.: I do not think that that is an overstatement. Therefore, after unsuccessful attempts to reset Russia, and at the time when Russia invaded Ukraine, the United States came to the conclusion that it was impossible to get along with Moscow at this point in time (at least with the people currently in charge of the Kremlin). If it is impossible to draw the Federation away from China, then it must be bled dry enough either to bring about a change of power or to make the Chinese economic drip, which is fed to Russia, a real burden for Beijing.

W.C.: Thank you for your time.

 

The article entitled „Russia under Chinese Drip” was published in the May issue of „Gazeta Uniwersytecka UŚ” (University of Sileisa magazine) no. 8 (298).

Dr Tomasz Okraska

Dr Tomasz Okraska | fot. Agnieszka Skorupa

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