Bond between China and Russia alarms US, Europe amid Ukraine crisis

Russian President Vladimir Putin with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Beijing on Feb 4, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - When Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called on Saturday (Feb 19) for talks to resolve the crisis in Europe, he said Ukraine's sovereignty should be "respected and safeguarded" - but also sided with Russia in saying that Nato enlargement was destabilising the continent.

"If Nato keeps expanding eastwards, is it conducive to maintaining peace and stability in Europe?" he said by video at the Munich Security Conference in Germany, which US Vice-President Kamala Harris was attending in person to rally countries against Russia.

It was the latest instance of what Western officials say is China taking a bold new swing at the United States and its allies by wading into European security issues to explicitly back Russia, which has amassed as many as 190,000 troops around Ukraine for a possible invasion - despite the fact Ukraine is not joining Nato any time soon.

Current and former US and European officials say they are alarmed over what is effectively a non-aggression pact between China and Russia that could amount to a realignment of the world order.

Portending a new type of Cold War, Biden administration officials say the US will work to create and bolster its own coalitions of democratic nations - including new Europe and Asia-Pacific strategic groups - and help countries develop advanced military capabilities.

Mr John Kirby, the chief Pentagon spokesman, said last week that the US government was watching the "burgeoning relationship" between China and Russia.

He said that a joint statement issued by the two countries in early February when Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping met in Beijing showed that China was standing behind Mr Putin's military build-up around Ukraine.

"(China's) tacit support, if you will, for Russia is deeply alarming and, frankly, even more destabilising to the security situation in Europe," Mr Kirby said.

In recent weeks, the two nations negotiated a 30-year contract for Russia to supply gas to China through a new pipeline.

They blocked a demand from Washington that the United Nations impose additional sanctions on North Korea for new missile tests, even though the two nations had agreed to similar sanctions before.

And Russia moved large numbers of troops from Siberia to its west, a sign that Moscow, in preparing for a potential invasion of Ukraine, trusts China along their shared border in the east.

Their long courtship reached a peak with the 5,000-word joint statement that said their partnership had "no limits", which some Biden administration officials see as a turning point in China-Russia relations and a brazen challenge to American and European power.

The statement was the first in which China explicitly joined Russia in opposing any further expansion of Nato, and the two countries denounced Washington's Indo-Pacific strategy and its new security partnership, Aukus, which includes Britain and Australia. The nations also described Taiwan as "an inalienable part of China".

China and Russia declared that they would work with other countries to "promote genuine democracy" and counter American-led ideology and institutions - building a new world order in which autocracies are unchallenged, US and European officials say.

"They seek a new era, as they say, to replace the existing international order," Ms Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said in Munich on Saturday. "They prefer the rule of the strongest to the rule of law, intimidation instead of self-determination, coercion instead of cooperation."

The strengthening China-Russia ties could herald a reconfiguring of the triangle of power that defined the Cold War and that then President Richard Nixon exploited 50 years ago on Monday when he made a historic visit to Beijing to normalise diplomatic relations.

That helped the US and China to counterbalance the then Soviet Union. Ties between Beijing and Moscow had been unravelling for years over issues of ideology and foreign policy.

The opposite is happening now.

"It's certainly concerning, and it is not a positive development from the standpoint of US national security or US national interests," said Ms Susan Shirk, chair of the 21st Century China Centre at the University of California, San Diego, and a former State Department official. "They have a kind of common perspective on the US right now, and there is this affinity between the leaders."

Ms Shirk said President Joe Biden nonetheless should try engaging in diplomacy with Mr Xi to coax him to act with the US on the Russia-created Ukraine crisis. "This seems like Diplomacy 101 given at least the history of this triangular relationship," she added.

China and Russia are not united by ideology, and they are in a marriage of convenience that Russia needs more.

While Mr Xi appreciates Mr Putin's defiance of the US, he does not want the economic uncertainty that a European war would bring. China also traditionally insists on respecting every nation's sovereignty, as Mr Wang made clear on Saturday.

There are limits to what China would do to help Mr Putin if he invades Ukraine. After Washington imposes sanctions on Russia, Chinese companies could buy more oil and gas from Russia and help fill some technology gaps, but the major Chinese state-owned banks would probably refrain from overt violations of the sanctions for fear of being shut out of the global financial system.

Mr Xi and Mr Putin have met 38 times as national leaders. They share a drive to restore their nations to a former glory that they see as having been stripped from their homelands by Western European powers, the US and, in China's case, Japan.

Both are obsessed with the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991: Mr Putin seeks to forcefully wind back the clock to a pre-collapse era, while Mr Xi aims to prevent China from meeting the same fate as the Soviet empire. They accuse Washington of fomenting mass protests and democracy movements around the world to overthrow other governments.

An intensifying conflict with China and Russia would have a different shape than the Cold War.

China's trade economy is deeply integrated with those of other nations, including the US, and Russia is an important energy exporter to Europe.

For practical reasons, the three governments would be unable to completely block commercial exchanges with one another or form distinct economic blocs with partner countries, like in the days of the Iron Curtain.

China is Ukraine's largest trade partner, and Beijing has acknowledged the nation's sovereignty for decades. It has never recognised Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula. Notably, the joint statement made no explicit mention of Ukraine.

"When I was in the government, we would take a very hard look at China's calculations and find those things that were not compatible with what Putin was trying to do and work on that basis," said Mr Daniel Russel, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

"The fact is that it's so late in the game, and the three sides have moved so far in this unequal triangle that it's really not going to be easy to try to undo that."

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