It is fashionable to talk about the Chinese card that Russia is supposed to play might resort to even more in the context of its confrontation with the West. In recent weeks, some have indeed argued about probable perverse effects of reinforced sanctions in this regard. The image image of the Putin-Xi Jinping meeting, on the margins of the Beijing Olympics, stroke the minds. But we have to take a closer look at realities that are not so simple and we also have one or several Chinese cards up our sleeve.
The Chinese card of Moscow has been mentioned for more than ten years now. Russia’s turning point towards Asia dates back more precisely from the « Primakov Doctrine » of the mid-1990s. There was already a long way from myth to reality when half of Russia’s trade was made with the countries of the European Union and European investments represented 70% of foreign investment in the country. It is true that since then China has become Russia’s largest trading partner, but the European share of investment has increased to 75%. Simply put, this means that technology continues to come from the west.
China and Russia also seem to have come a long way in recent years, both bilaterally and multilaterally, for example in the context of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) of both economic and political character. The SCO limited in 2001 to the two countries and those of Central Asia, except Turkmenistan, opened fifteen years later to India and Pakistan, then to Iran in 2021. It is interesting to note that one of the Organization’s missions is to counter “separatism”.
The Primakov Doctrine was based on the idea of a triangular relationship with Asia and Europe aimed at distinguishing itself from the Washington-Beijing-Moscow triangle of the Cold War. The war in Ukraine thus marks a break with both Washington and Europe and it places Moscow in an almost exclusive head-to-head with Beijing which could therefore be more restrictive. On the Chinese side, concerns related to Xinjiang remain a priori and the search for both a diversification of energy supplies and a balance of the relationship with the United States.
The new Sino-Russian relationship could prove to be demanding even stifling for Moscow. Assuming that Russia is forced to primarily orientate its energy exports eastward, which will take a considerable time to convert, one can imagine that China will then be in a position to weigh on prices. Nor will it see Russia as a significant export market to ensure a significant sale of the « workshop of the world » final products. Expressed differently, this means that an economy whose GNP lies between that of Spain and Italy weighs relatively heavily.
The 2001 Sino-Russian Treaty on Good Neighbourliness, Friendship and Cooperation enshrined a strategic partnership between the two countries. Moscow has classically aligned itself, with regard to Taiwan, on the thesis of the uniqueness of China and the emphasis has also been placed on the defence of national unity and the territorial integrity of States.
In this regard, it will have been noted that China did not support the declaration on recognition of the independence of the two Russian-speaking entities of Donbas. For his part, the Chinese minister of Foreign Affairs recently focused recently in the Munich Wehrkunde in to defending and illustrating the principle of territorial integrity. The justification for the intervention in Ukraine (cf. genocide, denazifiacation), even if it is brutally expressed, will not necessarily be more convincing as regard to the substance in Beijing than it is judged in Washington and in European capitals. At most at the UN Security Council, which met at the same time as the Russian President’s statement at dawn, China said it understood Moscow’s security concerns.
Faced with the major danger that Russia represents today for the security of Europe and the whole world, a new containment policy must be devised. After Obama’s pivot in Asia and Trump’s aggressive turn towards China inherited by President Biden, the United States is now caught up by the European continent. They will therefore have to devote themselves to a Russian case all the more worrying, beyond totally reprehensible acts, that the President Putin went so far as to introduce in his language elements of nuclear deterrence.
Will this observation be likely to lead to relativize, for a time at least, a Chinese obsession? The Taiwan issue is now a constant backdrop. There are strategic reasons for this in the South China Sea and on the Beijing side the Strait of Formosa is a key gateway for its nuclear submarines to the Philippine Trench.
A nightmare scenario, sometimes evoked these days, would be that a major crisis is developing in Taiwan at the same time as that of Ukraine. If this were to happen in a delayed manner, would the treatment of the crisis be the same in the face of a new hierarchy of priorities? Would the scandal of Taiwan’s integration not be considered under international law within the strict framework of China’s uniqueness? In other words, if we didn’t want to die for Kiev, would we be willing to die for Taipeh and a country that we don’t even recognize?
On the economic front, Beijing’s reluctance to welcome Iran to the SCO in 2021 – after years of dithering -, is one sign among others of the absolute necessity for China to maintain a mutually beneficial economic and trade relationship with the United States. For Beijing, Europe also weighs much more than a Russia that has become a pariah state, and Brussels and the EU member states consider themselves to be a «competitor» of China but also a «partner».
In this context – and these perspectives deserve to be developed and refined -, the interest of the free world, whose cultural affinities with the Middle Kingdom are great, would be to imagine, beyond harsh sanctions against Russia, a new Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494, a kind of sharing of the economic world and the basis for neutralizing the great threat of the time and the years to come.