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China Will Not Be A Strong Supporter of Russia

The Partnership

With Russia seeking Chinese assistance, I think the real question is just how strong this alliance really is? And in figuring this out, how much action will China really take? Understanding the level of Chinese commitment will help us predict how aggressive China will be in other regions, and whether global tensions will rise; for example through the US-China rivalry.

The current position is as follows:

One, there is a real strategic partnership between China and Russia. (inset reference)
Two, Russia is suffering under increased sanctions.
And three, Russia has reached out to China for economic support.

Regarding their partnership, what underlies it is shared distrust for America. It is not some altruistic or a bond of common culture. And of the two, Russia is definitely the weaker partner now. So what matters is what the Chinese calculations are.

Chinese Calculations

On the side of the Chinese, their logic is thankfully very rational. They want to undermine sanctions as a tool of Western policy. Because if they support sanctions - which are American led, they are diminishing their own significance and in effect letting America reassert power. It doesn't help that sanctions were also used on China over Hong Kong and Xinjiang.

But, China also has no reason to suffer for Russian actions. Their domestic economy is important to them and international criticism hurts business.

It also is likely to use this situation as a case study. It's helpful to understand Russian mistakes - for example it might be more focused on making its financial system more robust now. And its capital markets could be much more developed - with the goal of reducing dependence on the West.

Take all three points and it looks like Chinese aid will be lukewarm. They'll want to reject Ukrainian independence only insofar as it rejects outright acknowledging America. They could conduct some trade with Russia denominated in roubles and yuan, rather than dollars. But, I think they will also limit the magnitude of trade flows to prevent being dragged into open confrontation.

What About Taiwan?

Some might also worry that Taiwan is under greater threat, but the Ukrainian case might illustrate just how quickly other nation states could rebalance against China. Additionally, it is fairly difficult to outright invade and occupy, especially with the amphibious crossings that Taiwan demands.

There could be some risk if America escalates and China interprets that Taiwan might formally break away. In which case, China might be forced to bring Taiwan in by force - thereby prompting open conflict. But this is unlikely with America's current preoccupations in Europe.

You might then worry that America's presence is too weak and might prompt an opportunistic capture. But because of the example of rebalancing against Russia and the renewed ascendance of NATO, I think China would have to forecast more resistance if it goes ahead.

So all in all, the Chinese support will likely be lukewarm towards Russia - which is a good thing. And so is it good that tensions in the rest of the world are not set to rise as well. Because if Taiwan does come under real threat, I think we'll have a lot more problems to worry about.

References:


https://www.economist.com/leaders/2022/03/12/will-china-offer-russia-financial-help
https://www.economist.com/china/2022/03/12/xi-jinping-places-a-bet-on-russia
https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2022-03-15/china-s-goal-with-putin-is-to-resist-u-s-without-economic-pain