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Beijing’s Shrewd and Strategic Ambiguity Vis-à-Vis Moscow

La sagaz ambigüedad estratégica de Beijing ante Moscú

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IN 2014, the Kremlin launched its first Ukraine war to seize Crimea by “divorcing” Russia from the West. Beijing saw economic and geopolitical opportunities. Trade between China and Russia grew from $95 billion in 2013 to $147 billion in 2021. Moscow and Beijing have aligned their geopolitical interests in Central Asia around the Eurasian Silk Road and Belt.

From Beijing’s point of view, China adequately supported Russia in the face of Western sanctions over the second Ukraine war. From Moscow’s point of view, that Chinese support is as indispensable as it is ambiguous and costly. In his May meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, Xi Jinping spoke of Chinese respect for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. But at the UN Security Council meeting, Beijing defended Russian “legitimate security concerns” in the face of NATO expansion.

Beijing’s support for Moscow is strategically ambiguous and diplomatically cautious. China has not recognized the independence of Ukraine’s pro-Russian separatists, nor Russian sovereignty over Crimea. But Beijing supported Moscow enough that Secretary of State Blinken, recently criticized Beijing’s support for Moscow at the United Nations, the Kremlin’s dissemination of propaganda about the Ukrainian war in Chinese state media, and previous joint Beijing-Moscow military exercises.

On June 12, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe stated that China does not provide arms to Russia because “Sino-Russian relations are a partnership, not an alliance.” Meanwhile, the Chinese Customs Administration estimated that from January to May 2022 the turnover between Russia and China increased by more than 28% compared to the same period last year, already exceeding $65 billion.

Russian exports to China increased by 46.5 % reaching $41 billion, while Chinese exports to Russia increased by 7.2 %, reaching $24.5 billion. The trade balance is clearly favorable to Moscow, but 70% of Russian exports to China are raw materials, mainly oil, natural gas, and coal. What Beijing increased the most was the purchase of Russian Ural-grade oil at a discount of around $30 per barrel, just as Beijing has been buying oil at deep discounts from sanctioned Iran for years.

China’s state-owned Sinopec and PetroChina also buy Russian liquefied natural gas at a 10% discount. Gazprom supplies gas to China through the Power of Siberia pipeline and in 2025 will ship more through the Power of Siberia 2 pipeline. And it is no different with coal. Beijing responded to European Union (EU) sanctions on Russian coal by increasing its imports of Russian coal at lower prices than it buys from geographically closer suppliers, such as Indonesia and Mongolia.

Russian imports from China grew relatively little. Huawei closed 4 of its 19 official sales outlets in Russia, and other Chinese smartphone and computer brands, such as Xiaomi, Oppo and Lenovo also reduced product offerings in Russia (mostly due to lower incomes of Russian households than for fear of secondary sanctions). But Chinese Haval cars, manufactured in Russia since 2019, will now also be imported directly from China and the new road bridge over the border Amur River between the cities of Blagoveshchensk and Heihe will be important in that new Sino-Russian trade.

But New Delhi is also looking to increase its trade with Russia. The Indian Commerce Ministry estimates that exports to Russia could increase rapidly. And Russia was already the second-largest oil exporter to India in May, surpassing Saudi Arabia. New Delhi is aligning with the West against Beijing, but it is also seeking advantages like the ones China gets from energy trade with Russia, while trying to weaken the strategic partnership between Beijing and Moscow. China’s shrewd and strategic ambiguity bets on limited support that makes Moscow increasingly dependent on Beijing.

Guillermo Rodríguez is a professor of Political Economy in the extension area of the Faculty of Economic and Administrative Sciences at Universidad Monteávila, in Caracas. A researcher at the Juan de Mariana Center and author of several books // Guillermo es profesor de Economía Política en el área de extensión de la Facultad de Ciencias Económicas y Administrativas de la Universidad Monteávila, en Caracas, investigador en el Centro Juan de Mariana y autor de varios libros

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