MS Risk Blog

China’s balancing act / walking a tightrope

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In a quickly-changing international environment, China has had some intense last weeks. The winter Olympics held in Beijing were closured on 20 February, and the invasion of Ukraine started on 24 February. China now has both an opportunity and a threat for its role as a superpower. Beijing seeks three goals simultaneously: a strategic partnership with Russia, a commitment to longstanding foreign policy principles of territorial integrity and non-interference, and a desire to minimise collateral damage from EU and US sanctions. But China cannot reconcile these three conflicting goals and will either have to ditch one or the other, or uncomfortably change its position under international scrutiny. This situation has encouraged the international community to closely monitor China’s reactions to the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, one of its main allies. This brief will analyse the upsides and downsides of this world crisis for China and how the country could navigate the following weeks.

China has benefited from Ukraine’s invasion in four ways: China’s new role as international mediator, US diverting its attention out of the Asia-Pacific theatre, Russia’s dependency, and for internal propaganda. Beijing maintains the balance between its camaraderie with Putin and the fear of sanctions for its economy if it supports an invasion condemned by most countries in the world. China is in a unique position: it has endorsed Russia’s “legitimate security concerns”, due to NATO’s enlargement to the east, but even the head of EU diplomacy, Josep Borrell, acknowledged that China was the best actor to act as mediator. In fact, the Chinese MFA has stated that China was “ready” to take a role in the Ukrainian crisis and act as a mediator to end the war, and that China had already interceded and “provided some advice,” Wang said, citing the conversation between Putin and Xi the day after the invasion began, in which the Chinese President expressed his desire to promote peace talks.

The conflict moreover diverts the attention of the United States and key European powers from the Indo-Pacific region. From a geopolitical perspective, this temporal distraction gives Beijing more of a free hand to deal with its concerns in the region. In addition, China’s influence over Russia has been increased thanks to the invasion: Russia is highly constrained by international sanctions and it is now more dependent than ever on Chinese economic support to lessen the impact of Western sanctions. Moreover, China could offer Russia the use of its CIPS interbank payment system to bypass the SWIFT blockade. Despite these close ties, it is key to remark that trade between Russia and China only makes up to 2% trade volume, while the EU and the US have much larger shares.

Despite these advantages for China, they don’t imply that China would necessarily be happy to support any risky military moves made my Moscow. A final advantage for Beijing is that this war has been portrayed by Chinese state media as yet another example of the West’s failings, portraying the United States and NATO as refusing to respect the sovereign right of other countries, such as China and Russia, to defend their territories. In sum, it has been used as a chance to weaken America’s soft power, tarnish the credibility and appeal of liberal institutions, and discredit the open media inside China.

However, China’s role in the world is being damaged in two ways: economic disruptions and increase in tensions with Taiwan. China’s economy will be directly affected by the war because of grain supplies and the risk to its infrastructure projects in Ukraine. Until 2014, Russia was Kiev’s main and undisputed trading partner. However, the Government decided to abandon its economic dependence on a country with which it had major diplomatic problems. Then came China, which is currently the country to which Ukraine exports the most products. The war could disrupt grain security in the country: China bought more than 8 million tons of barley product from Ukraine in 2021, more than 30% of its total imports, making it an important partner for its supply. In fact, on 6 March President Xi Jinping said that China had to rely on its domestic market for grain security considering the current disruptions. Other products that China imports from Ukraine are iron, and sunflower and corn.

Apart from this grain-supply disruption, the biggest Chinese bet in the war-affected area is not the purchase of its products, but its powerful investment in infrastructure. Xi Jinping’s idea is to create a route that connects Beijing with Madrid in a land route, China with Russia (passing through Afghanistan) and, from Moscow, with Western Europe, passing through Belarus and Poland. However, Ukraine has joined the project at the last minute with a very important role in this project. China’s idea is to strongly reinforce Ukraine’s infrastructure to serve as a parallel route and to be able to reinforce shipments. In this sense, in 2018 China spent 7,000 million dollars on projects of this type in Ukraine, in particular in various expansions and construction of ports in the Black Sea. Three years later, the Ukrainian route has become an equal or more important bet than the Polish one and both governments have intensified their commercial relations. In 2021, the Zelensky government signed an infrastructure agreement by which both executives would actively collaborate on various projects throughout the country. At the signing of this agreement, the Ukrainian President promised that Kiev would be “the bridge to Europe”. For his part, Xi Jinping himself stated that China “supports the territorial integrity of Ukraine”, a statement that the Chinese foreign minister repeated exactly right when the Russian invasion began. The war and the destruction of infrastructures would be a risk for China’s intercontinental project and would mean the loss or the postponement of this lucrative project. Apart from the direct impact on the grain supply and Chinese infrastructure projects, China would also be indirectly affected by the war in the economic sense. An escalation of conflict, whether it is in Ukraine, in North Korea or anywhere else would affect China’s plans for economic growth. China’s economy, already harmed by the government’s zero-tolerance covid policy, could be affected by the war to a certain extent. In 2022 President Xi Jinping will seek a third leadership term, so he has to make sure that his management of the economy is good enough to have legitimacy and be re-elected. A final disadvantage of this war for China are the constant parallelisms with Taiwan made by media and analysts. The war unleashed by Russia has raised concerns in Taiwan, where there have been public displays of support for Ukraine such as “Ukraine Now, Later Taiwan”. Even if a hypothetical long-term military operation is not ruled out, an assault in the near future seems unfeasible. Moreover, a conflict in the Taiwan Strait would have a greater effect on the world’s economy than that of Ukraine, given the great manufacturing and logistics importance of the area, including Taiwan’s great power in semiconductors, keys to the production of automobiles, and computer and electronic equipment. Moreover, China is more exposed internationally than Russia and the reaction of antagonism and nervousness among its neighbours would be stronger. Despite this, Beijing has been building a financial and commercial world parallel to the one led by the United States, which would cushion Western sanctions and make their exports more irreplaceable for the world than those of the Russians. China will adjust and re-adjust its approach towards Russia in the following weeks. For now, Beijing is willing to play “a constructive role” in promoting an agreement to end the war in Ukraine while ensuring that its economy is affected as little as possible.