The United States has expressed concern over close ties between China and Russia, following several media reports that Beijing is open to Russian requests for military assistance.
Reuters, CNN and the Financial Times all reported that US officials had told allies by cable that Beijing could help Russia out in a number of ways, with CNN reporting that the Kremlin had asked for Chinese military rations.
In a background briefing to journalists following a meeting in Rome between National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and senior Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi, US officials declined to confirm or deny the reports, but said they had concerns about the relationship.
“I’m just going to reiterate that we do have deep concerns about China’s alignment with Russia at this time,” a senior US official told a White House conference call. “And the National Security Advisor was direct about those concerns and the potential implications and consequences of certain actions [during the meeting with Yang].”
But he declined to comment further, saying Washington was in direct contact with Beijing.
“We’re not communicating via the press with China. We’re communicating directly and privately,” the official said.
International relations commentator Wu Qiang said that while China has no wish to see the collapse of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s government, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is likely to be far more concerned with minimizing the damage to China on the world stage than with supporting its “rock-solid” ally at all costs.
China has refused to criticize the Russian invasion of Ukraine since the war began, preferring instead to repeat calls for a diplomatic solution to both nations’ security concerns.
“[China’s] position on the Ukraine war has changed from defending Putin’s interests to defending China’s, since the start of the war,” Wu said. “However, geopolitical security is a secondary consideration.”
He said Beijing was unlikely to sign up for formal allyship on the lines of the Axis powers during World War II, but was highly likely to render assistance to Russia in a way that would avoid international sanctions.
“This war has put China in a similar situation to the Korean War in 1950,” Wu said. “They will be happy to follow that model so as to avoid sanctions and implication in the eyes of the international community … while helping to prop up Putin’s regime.”
If Putin falls, there will be a political backlash for Beijing, he said.
“Should Putinism fail, decline or the regime suddenly collapse, China will face an unpredictable chain reaction in its domestic political sphere,” Wu said. “It would be similar to the impact on China after the collapse of the Soviet Union.”
Wang Hung-jen, associate professor at Taiwan’s National Cheng Kung University, said China has scant reason to cooperate with US policy aims regarding Ukraine.
“Their relationship with Russia is better than their relationship with the US, so they have no reason to cooperate with US policy,” Wang said. “I think the US is worried about that.”
“Naturally, they don’t want to fall out with the US, nor do they wish to stand in confrontation with the entire Western world,” he said. “They want to try to please everyone and remain neutral, keeping a distance from the Ukraine issue, and extricating themselves as soon as they can.”
“I think they will still assist [Russia], but they may weigh up carefully how to do this,” Wang said.
China has banned any criticism of Russia from its tightly controlled internet.
However, a March 5 essay by Hu Wei, vice-chairman of the Public Policy Research Center of the Counselor’s Office of the State Council and chairman of Shanghai Public Policy Research Association, said the Russian invasion had caused “great controversy” in China, with scant common ground between supporters and those who oppose it.
Hu, who’s essay has been deleted from China’s internet, describes Putin’s military action as “an irreversible mistake” that was unlikely to yield any sort of victory for Russia, whether on the battlefield or at the negotiating table.
Whatever the outcome, China risks becoming further isolated from the international community.
“If China does not take proactive measures to respond, it will encounter further containment from the US and the West,” Hu warned. “China cannot be tied to Putin and needs to cut him off as soon as possible.”
Hu argued that China’s insistence on “playing both sides” and staying neutral was failing to help Russia, and had infuriated everyone else.
“The bottom line is to prevent the US and the West from imposing joint sanctions on China,” he wrote.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian dismissed the media reports about military assistance to Russia as “malicious disinformation.”
“We have been playing a constructive part in promoting peace talks,” Zhao told a regular news briefing in Beijing on Monday. “The top priority at the moment is for all parties to exercise restraint, cool the situation down instead of adding fuel to the fire, and work for diplomatic settlement rather than further escalate the situation.”
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