Will China come to Russia’s aid?

In his last press conference of 2016, then US President Obama was candid in his opinion of Russia’s position in the world.

Obama emphasised that Russia cannot change or significantly weaken the US, adding that it was a smaller and weaker country.

He said at the time that Russia’s economy “doesn’t produce anything that anybody wants to buy,” except oil, gas and arms. The only way Russia can affect the US, he said, is “if we lose track of who we are” and “abandon our values.”

“Mr Putin can weaken us just like he’s trying to weaken Europe if we start buying into notions that it’s OK to intimidate the press, or lock up dissidents or discriminate against people,” he said.

Those words must surely have stung, and how odd they sound now that Putin has launched an all-out military assault on Ukraine. Only one thing is clear at the moment from his actions: there will be significant geopolitical and economic instability for some time to come as the international order respond’s to a move which is the largest war in Europe since the end of the Second World War.

The one question that as yet remains unanswered is what role China will play in the coming weeks and months.

So far, China’s position on Russia’s move on Ukraine has been clear: Beijing does not endorse Moscow’s aggression.

China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, attempted to clarify this stance over the weekend. “The sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of any country should be respected and safeguarded,” Wang told the Munich Security Conference. “Ukraine is no exception.”

And yet, and yet…

Both countries are run by dictators in all but name and have moved closer in recent years as both have faced rising tensions with the West, with Putin even visiting Beijing at the beginning of February for the start of the Winter Olympics.

Indeed, Putin and President Xi Jinping issued a statement at the time which declared that the “friendship between the two States has no limits”.

Perhaps more importantly, China could yet step in to soften the impact of any economic sanctions that might be imposed by the West as a punishment for Russia in the wake of the invasion.

What could this entail? Well, it could mean Chinese banks lending money to Moscow and Beijing buying more Russian oil and gas.

As Tom Rafferty, a Beijing-based analyst with the Economist Intelligence Unit, told the Financial Times: “The level of Chinese support for Russian actions could be an influential factor in shaping an evolving crisis.”

You bet.

Marcus Alcock

Editor, Emerging Risks

Follow us on twitter: @risksEmerging

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