In light of Ukraine, what is China’s long game with Russia?

In light of Ukraine, what is China’s long game with Russia?

March 17, 2022
by: Drew-Anne Glennie

On February 4, 2022 Russia and China released a joint statement solidifying their bilateral relationship. Twenty days later, Russia launched a full-scale invasion on neighbouring Ukraine. 

Their statement – totalling over 5,000 words – claimed that the China-Russia relationship had “no limits” and signalled that China is ready to stand with Russia against the West. The countries also outlined their intentions to advance economic, security, and information cooperation. Key assertions include opposition to NATO enlargement, Russian affirmation of the “One-China” policy towards Taiwan, and Chinese support of Russia’s calls for security guarantees from Europe. Nuclear and chemical/biological weapons were mentioned throughout, including in relation to the AUKUS agreement and American arms/defense development and/or stockpiles. 

The agreement was signed during Russian President Vladmir Putin’s Olympic visit to Beijing, which Canada and several other Western countries, including the United States and Australia, had diplomatically boycotted.

Four days after the Winter Olympics came to a close, the Russian invasion of Ukraine began. Experts disagree over China’s role in the conflict: were they duped? Did they misinterpret the information? Did they have full awareness?  

On March 18, The Hon. Kevin Rudd, former Prime Minister of Australia and current president of the Asia Society, will join Canadian broadcaster and Munk School Distinguished Fellow Peter Mansbridge to discuss the fate of Russia’s relationship with China at a virtual Munk School event called Russia, Ukraine and China’s Long Game.

Rudd is a leading expert on the region who began his career as a China scholar, serving as an Australian diplomat in Beijing before entering Australian politics. He has also provided extensive commentary on the issue of China’s relationship with Russia since day Ukraine was invaded. In his February Financial Review op-ed, he wrote that ,“China and Russia are willing to move boldly in directly challenging the US for global leadership, seeking to fundamentally reshape the world order to suit their interests and values. Meeting this challenge will take a degree of unity and statecraft that the liberal-democratic world has, in recent decades, struggled to marshal.” 

Beijing voiced support for Russia the day after the invasion, with Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin telling reporters that “we recognize that the Ukraine issue has a complex and special historical context and understand Russia’s legitimate concerns on security issues.” As the war continues to rage on, however, China’s response has become more lukewarm, such as choosing to abstain rather than veto the Security Council and General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia. On March 1st, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke with his Ukrainian counterpart on the damages faced by civilians. He has also voiced willingness for China to serve as a mediator, a goal which he claims China has been pursuing since “Day One,” and has stated that the Red Cross Society of China would be sending emergency aid to Ukraine. 

Most recently, in response to American rumours of Russia asking China for military assistance, the Chinese Ambassador to Ukraine Fan Xiangong asserted that they would “never attack Ukraine.” Nevertheless, as Beijing continues to assert that China is not a party in this conflict, they have also stated that Sino-Russian trade cooperation will continue as normal and that their relations remain “iron clad.” 

At this Friday’s Munk School event, Rudd and Mansbridge will be joined by Munk School director Peter Loewen, who will provide welcoming remarks.  

Register for the online event today.