Russia and China are working together to limit US influence. They claim that real democracy is in their countries, not in the US. The former regards Ukraine as its errant child and the latter as an important link in the new Silk Road.
“It is impossible that China did not know about the planned Russian invasion of Ukraine,” says Theresa Fallon, director of the Brussels-based Center for Russia, Europe and Asia Studies (CREAS).
And, she adds, if we want to fully understand Russia’s actions in Ukraine, we need to take a closer look at Russian-Chinese relations. We should also know that China has successfully tried to use Ukraine for its One Belt and One Road initiative, a modern-day reactivation of the Silk Road. Last but not least, to know about Ukrainian-Chinese military cooperation.
“The war in Ukraine is much more than the result of Russia’s imperial aspirations or a desire filled with historical sentiment to regain influence in the post-Soviet region. It is an attempt to reshape the international order that Western countries built after the Second World War,” explains Theresa Fallon. “In this jigsaw, Russia and China resemble Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a pair of criminals terrorising their neighbourhood. They initially competed with each other, only to eventually join forces in an effort to escape justice.”
After years of intolerance and hostility, Russia and China concluded some time ago that their interests were converging and that cooperation was therefore worthwhile. What is its basis? The urgent need to dismantle the current international system based on institutions created by the West after the Second World War, which now stands in the way of the great power ambitions of both Russia and China.
We can hardly understand Russia’s actions in Ukraine, Theresa Fallon argues, if we do not take note of China’s activities in Ukraine in the years preceding the seizure of Crimea.
“Since about 2010, China has acted in Ukraine in a way that Vladimir Putin has been very concerned about. It has focused on ever closer economic and military cooperation.”
From the very beginning, Ukraine has been an important focus of China’s flagship development project, the One Belt and One Road initiative. The first investment maps from 2013, when the project was made public, bypassed Russia. Yet this is the largest infrastructure project in Eurasia, for which China is prepared to spend up to $8 trillion to build the necessary transport infrastructure and boost international trade with the aim of its own expansion into the West.
“Leaving Russia out of these plans was not only an insult to Putin, who has been trying for years to build a Eurasian union, but also threatened to further marginalize him economically.”
Alongside this, China, having problems with food production while refusing to fall into food dependence on the US, became involved in the development of Ukrainian agriculture. In 2013, it signed the world’s largest-ever farmland lease agreement. It leased 3 million hectares in Ukraine for 50 years. Ukraine thus became China’s largest overseas agricultural centre. The deal is worth about $2.6 billion a year. China uses the land to grow crops and raise pigs. Most of the production then goes to China via Crimea. In Crimea itself, China has committed to building roads, bridges and residential areas.
Over the same years, China has bought military equipment from Ukraine that Russia would never have sold it: anti-missile systems and engines for fighter jets. Even an old cruiser. The Chinese converted it into an aircraft carrier. Part of the purchase of weapons included training for soldiers of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. For the Ukrainian budget, these transactions represented very significant revenues.
“If I were Putin, watching Chinese actions in Ukraine, starting in the second decade of the 21st century, I would be nervous too. Putin probably sensed that he was being played on two sides, by the US and the EU in the west and by China in the east. So he decided to occupy Crimea.”
Russia’s annexation of Crimea has caused a profound change in Sino-Russian relations.
“China has understood that if it wants its flagship development project to succeed, it must cooperate with Russia. So Moscow was included in the project as one of its important nodes. Russia’s seizure of Crimea was recognised by China. It has pledged to rebuild the port there, which was destroyed by the bombing, and which is to be fully operational again.” (The port was bombed by the Russians.)
At the same time, tacit cooperation began to develop between the two countries. In the process, they challenged the international order based on US dominance. Nor did they stop short of questioning the values of liberal democracy, the ideas of human rights, civil liberties and the norms of international law. They have been driven by a common goal: 1) to weaken the United States and its alliance with Europe; 2) to undermine the already shaky solidarity within the European Union; and 3) to strengthen their presence in the regions they consider to be their spheres of influence.
“I’m not showing up America when I say that … both countries are making alliances around the world, especially in developing countries, based on post-colonial prejudices. They are making it known that they want to free the world from American domination. They portray Europe as an American doormat, a continent lacking strength, vitality and strategic independence.”
Mutual cooperation is also evident in the area of hybrid warfare. Especially when it comes to techniques for manipulating public opinion and planting disinformation.
“China is learning from Russia. And the more it learns the Soviet instrument, the more convincing it becomes. Until recently, its propaganda was one-dimensional and clumsy. It has relied on some would-be persuasive messages to suffice. Today, it wields the tried and tested Russian weapon: it sows confusion by repeating contradictory and confusing claims to the death. It is not only building its own channels of outreach, not only to Chinese media abroad, but also using Russian infrastructure.”
Coordination for a new era
The peak of the rapprochement between Russia and China came just before the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. On the opening day of the Winter Olympics in Beijing on 4 February, Xi Jinping meets Vladimir Putin. They will sign an agreement on a “strategic partnership to coordinate activities in the new era”. In the agreement, which is about 5,000 words long, they mainly emphasise that they will give each other absolute support in their efforts to build a new international order.
“We are supposedly witnessing the twilight and discrediting of the West. The US no longer has the legitimacy to be the world hegemon and as such must be stripped of its influence.”
The agreement claims that Russia and China are democratic countries. And they want to be respected as such. After all, democracy can be exercised in many different ways. Each country therefore has the right to define it according to the principles of its culture.
“Thus, for China, democracy is the right of the state to have its citizens under full surveillance, freedom of speech is excluded, and disobedient citizens are subject to brutal political re-education. Russia is merely an imprint of the Chinese example. So we are dealing with autocratic regimes that have turned the concept of democracy on its head and intend to promote it worldwide.”
Beijing rejects the notion that it is internationally recognised as a party to the war in Ukraine.
“China puts itself in the role of advocate. It has not condemned Russia’s aggression, and it abstained in the UN vote on the war resolution. … It is trying not to be accused of supporting Russia. It is very worried about Western sanctions. The European Union is its most important trading partner. It needs European markets…”
Fallon said China has been caught very off guard by the weakness of the Russian military. It draws lessons for itself from Russia’s failures regarding possible attempts to seize and occupy Taiwan. It is in no way prepared to support Russia beyond what is in its immediate interests. It is certainly not a relationship of equal partners.
“Russia says it is not worried about a possible European embargo on energy resources. It will find other markets, pointing to China. However, this is a foolish idea. The Chinese, as born strategists, are not going to become dependent on Russian energy resources. They may sign some contracts, but certainly not to the extent that this will protect Russia from the impact of European sanctions. China has already diversified its portfolio of suppliers considerably. And it will stay there.”
The author of the article published on the Polish portal OKO-press relies on Theresa Fallon’s statements. They are quoted in the text. The article has been edited and shortened in the Czech version.
Paulina Pacuła is a PhD student at the Institute for Political Studies in Warsaw and a graduate of the American Central Eastern Journalism Fellowship Program. She writes for OKO-press and Tygodnik Powszechny. She specializes in issues related to democracy, foreign affairs and relations within the European Union.
Theresa Fallon is the founder and director of the Brussels-based Center for Russian-European-Asian Studies (CREAS), a member of the Council for Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation, and a member of the CEPS Working Group on Artificial Intelligence and Cybersecurity. Her research focuses on EU-Asia relations, maritime security, global governance, China’s One Belt and One Road initiative, and global great power rivalry.
This article was translated from the Czech translation published at Časopis Přítomnost.
published: 18. 7. 2022