In this issue of the MERICS Europe China 360° we cover the following topics:
• China Debates: Russia’s war on Ukraine is a headache for China
• EU-Indo-Pacific Forum with China as the elephant in the room
• EU assesses its strategic dependency on China
You can read a free excerpt of our latest MERICS Europe China 360° below.
By Thomas des Garets Geddes
Few experts in China believed that Russia would launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Washington’s recent warnings were largely dismissed as anti-Russian propaganda. So, when Russia did launch its all-out attack, Chinese experts were at least as stunned as many Europeans. However, unlike in the West, widespread condemnation did not follow. While Beijing’s censorship apparatus certainly played a part in this, reactions in China have been more divided than in the West. Broadly speaking, there are the apologists – pro-Russian, anti-American and more prone to warmongering – and the moderates – more critical of the Russian regime and more averse to violence. Both camps, however, generally agree that the West is at least partly to blame for the outbreak of the war, and both do not question (at least not publicly) the importance of preserving strong Sino-Russian ties.
Chinese apologists and moderates have long criticized NATO and the European Union for their perceived aggressive eastward expansion. This, they argue, has been carried out without sufficient regard for Moscow’s national security interests and was bound to result in conflict. Both sides express some sympathy towards Russia’s grievances. Like China, Russia has seen its geopolitical space gradually constrained (地缘政治空间的挤压) by the West. It, too, has had to suffer criticism and lecturing by the western world. Russian resentment should have been better addressed, they say.
But apologists go a step further. They argue that Russia had no choice but to take up arms. Commenting on Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, Shen Yi, a professor at Fudan University, writes that Russia had been cornered and had no alternative other than to fight back (必须绝地反击). Such views are common in China and are not just the product of Beijing’s propaganda machine. More bellicose tendencies are also discernible among some apologists and lay commentators who have called on Beijing to learn from the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. They want China to use similar tactics to settle its disputes over Taiwan and the South China Sea.
On the opposite side of the spectrum are those who have denounced Putin’s recent moves and expressed their support for the Ukrainian people. But such overt comments are tracked by China’s censors and thus remain rare. More common are the occasional jabs at, and palpable irritation with, Moscow’s tendency towards “adventurism”, “strongman politics” and “zero-sum thinking”. Russia is “reluctant to accept the reality that its international status is declining”, write Han Lu and Liu Feitao from the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS).
Moscow is evidently an awkward partner for Beijing and many moderates worry about the impact the relationship will have on China’s international reputation. Even some apologists believe that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a strategic mistake. So far, however, no one in China has dared call on their government to distance itself from Moscow. Many, like Cao Wei, a professor at China’s University of International Relations, are aware that “the foundations of this seemingly good relationship may not be as strong as they first appear.” Beijing is now taking extra care not to damage them. After all, as Zhang Hong, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), writes, “You can change friends, not neighbours. China and Russia as neighbouring countries have to get along”.
According to many of these analysts, Russia remains the only “pole” in China’s ideal multipolar world that can both act as a counterbalance to the US and side with Beijing when required. Other potential “poles” such as India or Japan have already shifted too far westwards, they say. Still, the Chinese remain hopeful that the EU's pursuit of strategic autonomy could help curb the influence of the US and become a "breakthrough point for China's diplomacy" (中国外交的突破点). So, as one professor from Nanjing University recently remarked, the Russo-Ukrainian war has created a new conundrum for Beijing — how to preserve its ties with Moscow without damaging its relations with the EU. The longer and deadlier the war in Ukraine becomes, the more of a headache this will be for Beijing.
EUR 1.5 billion
That’s the rough value of seven infrastructure projects that France and China agreed to jointly pursue under a new third-party market cooperation. The first intergovernmental mechanism of this kind established by China, the initiative was discussed by Presidents Emmanuel Macron and Xi Jinping during a call on February 16. The details remain unclear, but China’s National Development and Reform Commission stated the projects would be located in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central and Eastern Europe – and include infrastructure and green investments.