The U.S., EU, U.K., and numerous other countries have imposed wide-ranging economic sanctions on Russia. However, in order for the sanctions to work as a deterrent force, it all depends on the actions of one of Russia's closest allies: China
On Feb. 4, President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping stressed in a joint announcement that ties between their respective countries know no boundaries. However, Russia's invasion of Ukraine sparked controversy over how far this alliance would go. There’s one crucial question, though: Will China provide Russia with the full support it expects to counter sanctions?
China's policy of shaping the global system in its own image may not be fully in line with Russia's expectations. Likewise, Russia's strategic priorities may not exactly line up with China's long-term strategic interests. In the words of Henry Kissinger: “Foreign policy is the art of establishing priorities,” and the real test of any given policy is not how it begins, but how it ends. The first goal of any strategy is to establish a relationship between the ends and the means. That’s exactly what China will set out to do in the coming period.
Russia's invasion of Ukraine is a game-changer on a geopolitical-global scale. China, meanwhile, has long invested in soft power, both in the United Nations and in its international relations as a whole, all within the framework of its global influence game-plan.
However, Russia’s invasion of its neighbor is disrupting the aforementioned game-plan. Beijing's stance on the Ukraine issue is often described as "pro-Russian neutrality" by observers. But Russia has more aces up its sleeve and can demand a lot more from China. In this context, economic sanctions will also serve as a litmus test of the "bulletproof alliance" between Beijing and Moscow.
As for China, its most important strategic priority is to ensure stable economic growth. Economic growth is, so to speak, Beijing’s holy grail.
China acts in accordance with the concept of "If you stop pedaling, you’ll fall." Beijing became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001 with the backing of the United States, and it has been benefiting from the global economic system for 20 years.
Thus, China is inconvenienced by the geopolitical risks that would disrupt this flow. Any drawback in growth rates would negatively impact China's defense expenditures and investments in new generation technologies. Of course, there is always the risk that any slowdown in economic growth rates would cause prosperity levels of the average Chinese to plummet.
China has extensive trade relations with the EU, and after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the barrage of sanctions from the EU and Germany's sharp shift in attitude caught Beijing by surprise. This development will push China to tread more carefully. Likewise, by helping Moscow withstand Western sanctions, China would risk crossing the U.S. and EU’s red lines and subject its companies to secondary sanctions.
Beijing is also apprehensive about risking its short-, medium- and long-term economic and military plans. The “One Belt-One Road” project plays a very important role in China's relationship with Europe. There is a risk that the instability in the Eurasian terrain, which includes Russia and Ukraine, would put the project in jeopardy.
The full-extent and ramifications of the wide-ranging sanctions coalition, comprised of the U.S., EU, U.K., Japan, Canada, and Australia, that would bear down on a great power like Russia, will be followed with great interest by China. If a wide-ranging sanctions coalition manages to choke off Russia's economy from the global economy, it could be repeated in the future with another superpower.
The United States, for its part, sees China and Russia as its two biggest threats. This is the main reason why Russia and China are clinging to each other. However, Beijing is a very crucial component of the global economy, and indeed it seems easier to isolate Russia than China. The challenges that sanctions and counter-reactions present for the global economy will be a tough test to navigate for both China and the Western-led sanctions coalition.
In terms of the consequences of the ongoing war in Ukraine, there are both opportunities and risks for China. On the one hand, sanctions will increase Russia's dependence on China, and on the other, the Chinese economy will find itself in a very precarious position due to disruptions in global supply chains, particularly when it comes to the supply of raw materials and food.
This fragility is exacerbated even when viewed through the Ukraine lens. About 30 percent of China's corn imports come from Ukraine. Iron exports from Ukraine to China are also at risk of being disrupted. In a nutshell, the Chinese will be walking on thin ice as they try to juggle Moscow's needs with their own.