"China is Putin’s best ally" or " China lets Russia attack Ukraine so that it can later decide to invade Taiwan... ". These are some of the assumptions that have been heard more frequently over the last few days about the war in Ukraine. Indeed, the situation is much more complex than that. China is not simply an ally of Russia and, barring drastic changes that may arise with no prior notice in these uncertain times, it has no intention of invading Taiwan in the short term. Let’s see why.
First of all, it is true that the economic relations between Beijing and Moscow have intensified in recent years, but China has the upper hand in the partnership. It is worth remembering that Russia’s economy is worth just one-tenth of China’s and is not among its top 10 trading partners. As a result, the value of their trade relations is high, especially in the energy sector, but not so high as to call into question relations with the rest of the world. Russia has been increasingly isolated by the international community – e.g. the Danish shipping company Maersk has suspended the shipments to and from Russia – and Beijing is definitely unwilling to follow the same path, given the 20 % increase in its trade with the rest of the world in 2021. China, therefore, is very worried about the economic implications of this crisis, because in case of isolation Russia alone could not constitute an alternative market and because it fears that in the long run its concerns about the infamous "decoupling" may come true in critical sectors.
What does that mean? It means that the pandemic and current tensions around oil and gas have shown the world that economic interdependence is more than just a reciprocal bond in favour of peace. Indeed, the asymmetry of trade relations is increasingly seen as an alternative weapon to military conflict. The most obvious representation is the discussion on economic sanctions by the US and the EU, countered by Moscow’s threats to turn off the gas tap. Russia, which had suffered financial sanctions in 2014, is aware of the risk of excessive exposure, and in recent years had already taken precautions by diversifying its financial interests to reduce its vulnerability to Western coercion. For this reason, Moscow and Beijing are explicitly considering how to shield each other from international economic sanctions. Such an issue may well apply to the rest of the world, which from now on will do everything it can to avoid being exposed to the risk of Russian or Chinese economic coercion. Examples are already in progress in the United States and the European Union, but also in India and in Japan. They are all promoting policies aimed at producing at home what they could only buy in China before.
China supports Russia while questioning the current international order, initiating a process that could boost China’s foreign policy clout, but that also exposes it to prolonged economic damage and to a very serious loss of international consensus the longer the war goes on. The images of Putin’s participation in the opening of the Winter Olympic Games as a guest of Xi Jinping are still fresh in the eyes of the international community, and many wonder whether the Chinese leader gave the green light to Russia, or whether Putin is instead suggesting he has China’s backing even if this is not actually the case. What is certain is that the Russian leader waited until the end of the Games to launch his invasion, implying that some kind of coordination might have taken place. For this reason, too, Beijing is working hard to find a solution that reduces civilian casualties and ensures the safety of the 6,000 Chinese citizens present in the country, while trying to present itself as neutral through diplomatic talks with Ukraine.
Arguably, it is not in Beijing’s interest to be portrayed as Putin’s best ally, because it might be held responsible for the civilian victims of the conflict, a fact that would significantly worsen its international and domestic image. Indeed, Xi Jinping stressed the need to prevent a large-scale humanitarian crisis during a video call with Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz. However, China still remains close to Moscow because the two countries share the same criticism of the current international order. It is not by chance that China’s first reaction to the war was to blame NATO and the United States.
And what about Taiwan? Well, if the West’s response to Russia had been instructive for Beijing’s ambitions on Taipei, several lessons have already been learned. Above all, the West showed that it can respond strongly when it wants to – let’s think of the sanctions and of the historical change of foreign policy of Germany – and that seizing territory in the 21st century is a complex operation, which requires quick actions and bears a high risk of failure, or at least of remaining bogged down in local guerrilla warfare. Today, China is committed to competing for global economic primacy in the 21st century with the United States, as Biden recalled in his State of the Union address, and it is unlikely to expose itself in an operation whose failure could undermine Xi Jinping’s leadership, which is currently very solid. For this reason, the aerial reconnaissance around the island, although frequent, should not be interpreted as a sign of imminent invasion, but almost as standard procedure.
The story of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is still to be written. For now, though, it is reasonable to argue that that China is not ready to wholeheartedly support Russia and that invading Taiwan seems to have a cost that is not worth facing today.