Eka Javakhishvili, Analyst
In parallel with the unprecedented mobilization of Russian troops alongside Ukraine’s borders, Russia and China have confronted the West by declaring their “unlimited cooperation.” The XXIV Olympic Winter Games started on February 4 and have become a major arena for political messages to the world. Before the official opening ceremony of the Olympics, talks were held between the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, and the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping. After the meeting, a joint statement was issued according to which the friendship between the two countries has no borders and there are no “forbidden areas of cooperation.” The parties expressed strong mutual support in “protecting each other’s fundamental interests.”
Amid demonstrations of Russian-Chinese “unity,” the world is anxiously awaiting whether Vladimir Putin will decide to invade Ukraine. As known, Moscow has more than 100,000 troops mobilized near the Ukrainian border, conducts military exercises in Belarus, separatist forces in Donbas are violating the ceasefire agreement more often and the threat of war remains at a high level. The United States and other Western countries have repeatedly warned Moscow of a possible “united transatlantic response” and “grave consequences” in the case of an attack on Ukraine. The Kremlin accuses the West of exaggerating the threat of an invasion of Ukraine; however, Russia’s full-scale military mobilization does not rule out the possibility of a war scenario. There is an expectation that Moscow might start a war before the end of the Olympics.
The special political importance of the Beijing Winter Olympics is expressed by the fact that Vladimir Putin left the country only twice after the spread of the coronavirus and, despite the panic caution he shows during meetings with foreign leaders, he still arrived in China. For Xi Jinping, the meeting with Putin was the first face-to-face engagement with a foreign leader in two years. It is noteworthy that Putin and Xi Jinping met for the 38th time since 2013.
Main Messages of the Joint Statement
The Russia-China Joint Declaration is infused with aspirations to establish a new world order in which the core interests of Russia and China are respected. The parties express their readiness to stand together against the dominance of the interests of the United States and other Western countries. The leaders of Russia and China say their new relations are “superior to the political and the military alliances of the Cold War era.” According to the joint declaration, the friendship between the two states has no borders and there are no prohibited areas of cooperation.
Messages on Democracy: The statement broadly discusses the decision of Russia and China to work together for creating a new world order based on their vision of human rights and democracy. Russia and China do not accept Western criticism of the violation of human rights and democratic values. Moreover, Putin and Xi Jinping have criticized attempts by “certain states” to establish global hegemony and set their own standards for democracy. They say people have the right to judge for themselves whether their state is democratic. The parties express their readiness to cooperate with all interested partners in promoting “true democracy.”
Security Challenges: In a joint statement, the two countries expressed their deep concern over the challenges in the field of international security. They affirm strong mutual support for the protection of fundamental interests, state sovereignty and territorial integrity. Russia and China are ready to resist the external interference and express intolerance of “colorful revolutions.”
The two countries oppose NATO enlargement and call on the alliance to end “Cold War ideology approaches.” Moscow and Beijing have also stated dissatisfaction with the AUKUS alliance between Australia, Great Britain and the United States, saying it increased the danger of an arms race in the region. Russia and China expressed concern over the US plan to expand its global missile defense and deploy its elements in various parts of the world. China supports the proposals made by Russia on the formation of legal guarantees of security issues in Europe. For its part, the Russian side voiced its support of the principle of a “united China” that Taiwan is an integral part of China and opposes Taiwan’s independence in any form.
Areas of Cooperation: Moscow and Beijing, through China’s Belt and Road Initiative and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union, will strengthen ties in various fields, work together to develop the Arctic and combat climate change. They support the deepening of the strategic partnership within the BRICS and aim to strengthen the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The parties want to strengthen cooperation on artificial intelligence and information security. The “unilateral sanctions policy” as well as the abuse of export control policy are unacceptable for Moscow and Beijing.
Focus on Energy Cooperation
In the case of a war with Ukraine, the United States and Europe threaten Russia by suspending the North Stream 2 project. Against this background, during the visit of the Russian delegation to China, new oil and gas deals valued at an estimated USD 117.5 billion have been signed between Russia and China. It is a kind of signal to the West that the Kremlin can minimize potential economic damage by diversifying energy exports. Putin wants to emphasize that Russia’s future does not depend solely on gas exports to Europe.
It should be noted that in 2014, in response to Western criticism of the annexation of Crimea, Putin turned to China in search of an alternative to the Western market. Xi Jinping then expressed his support for Putin by signing a USD 400 billion 30-year gas deal, despite Beijing has not recognized Crimea as Russian territory.
This time, amid tensions with Ukraine, an agreement was signed between Russia’s Rosneft and the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) to supply 100 million tons of oil to China through Kazakhstan over the next ten years. It should be noted that Rosneft is a leading oil exporter to China which provides 7% of the country’s oil needs annually.
During the visit, Gazprom and the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) also signed a long-term agreement to supply natural gas via the Far East route. According to the agreement, Gazprom will supply China with ten billion cubic meters more gas per year, increasing its volume from 38 to 48 billion cubic meters annually. These volumes look huge but pale in comparison to the amount of natural gas that Russia sends to Europe. By comparison, in 2021, Russia exported 16.5 billion cubic meters of gas to China and about 180 billion cubic meters of gas to Europe.
China’s Position on a Potential Russian-Ukrainian Conflict
It is noteworthy that Ukraine is not mentioned at all in the joint Russian-Chinese statement and in the current Ukrainian crisis, this declaration has not strengthened Russia’s position. This may indicate that China has no will to support Russia’s ambitions for Ukraine. The outbreak of hostilities in Ukraine will only hurt China’s interests. Beijing has wide trade ties with Ukraine within the framework of the Belt and Road initiative and maintaining stability in Europe is essential for the implementation of this ambitious project. It will not be acceptable for Beijing if Chinese investors are harmed by Russia’s aggressive actions and additional economic damage is inflicted on the country. Meanwhile, Moscow itself is putting such important political-economic or military resources at stake that its alliance with China will not be able to offset the potential losses.