By Csaba Barnabas Horvath
China has been seen by many as the most important ally of Russia in the invasion of Ukraine. However, after nearly two weeks of fighting, confusing episodes have been culminating around China’s attitude to the war. Regarding both the UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions, China has abstained rather than voted on the side of Russia. Regarding the sanctions on Russia, China hasn’t shown much of a willingness to help thus far, and two major Chinese banks, the Bank of China and the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, have even refused to help Russia process export transactions. Instead of supporting Russia, Chinese minister of foreign affairs, Wang Yi has called for de-escalation of the conflict. China seems to be pulling back its’ support from Russia, everywhere from diplomacy to economics.
On the other hand, however, Chinese statements right before the war seemed to have indicated Beijing’s full support for Moscow, and the fact that Russia waited for the end of the Beijing Winter Olympics seems to confirm rumors that Xi asked Putin to do so, indicating in turn that China was fully aware of what was coming, and decided to support it in full knowledge. Thus: Full support for the invasion before it started, but then a gradual pulling back once the invasion was underway – What’s going on here? Did China change its’ mind due to some unexpected occurrence?
What if nothing such happened, but it was a consistent strategy to encourage Russia to attack at first, but roll back its’ support after the war has started? Knowing the history of Sino-Russian relations, a Russian victory doesn’t seem to be in China’s interest. What is in China’s interest is a prolonged war of attrition, draining Russia’s resources as much as possible, weakening it as much as possible, meanwhile isolating it from the West as much as possible, and with a Russian defeat at the end.
A Brief History of Sino-Russian Relations
Throughout most of the history of Sino-Russian relations, Russia was an adversary, rather than an ally of China. Russia’s aim is not to become the junior partner in a Sino-Russian alliance, but to be a great power in its’s own right. Russia has a great power identity of its’ own, which means it pursues its’ great power agenda on its’ own, and as history has shown us, whenever that agenda crossed the interests of China, Moscow seldom hesitated to confront Beijing and, the stronger it was, the more it was willing to confront directly. Russia has grabbed roughly one million square miles from China in the treaties of Aigun and Beijing in 1858-1860 – an area called “Outer Manchuria,” the northern periphery of Manchuria up until that point – and the territory has hitherto been known as the Russian Far East, with Vladivostok and Khabarovsk established there by Russian colonists.
Chinese historiography still considers these treaties as “unequal treaties,” the Western humiliation of China, and thus even if legally legitimate, they are at least morally illegitimate. Mongolia as well as the Tuvan autonomous republic of Russia were parts of China until the fall of the Qing Empire in 1911. Russia first supported them gaining de facto independence in the 1910s with Mongolia serving as a strategic buffer state against China. Then, the Bolsheviks expanded communist rule to Mongolia and Tuva as well. After the Second World War, the Soviet Union achieved formal recognition of Mongolia’s independence by the People’s Republic of China, and annexed Tuva directly. Sino-Soviet cooperation after the communist victory in China in 1949 lasted a mere decade, and after the Sino-Soviet split occurred in the late 1950s, the two great powers even fought a brief border war in 1969 alongside the very sections of the border that Russia acquired in the unequal treaties of 1858-1860.
Relations between the two countries only warmed up after the collapse of the Soviet Union, with Russia becoming both weak enough to seek the friendship of, and to be viewed as harmless by, China. The formation of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization seemed to show a start of a Sino-Russia alliance, however a Chinese proposal for an SCO free trade area was refused by Russia, showing Moscow’s fears in the East: With its’ population a mere one-tenth of China, and its’s economy a mere fraction of the latter’s, the only factor remaining for Russia to appear in power alongside China, the same way as Canada appears alongside the US, is its’ military.
Later, adding India and Pakistan with their mutual antagonism to the SCO diluted the organization to the point of strategic meaninglessness and turned it into something like an Asian version of the OSCE at best. Russia views Kazakhstan as its’ own sphere of influence, while China, by connecting the country to itself with oil pipelines and investing in the Kazakh energy industry, is interested in enhancing Kazakhstan’s independence from Russia and making it a major energy supplier for China. To cut it short, Sino-Russian cooperation in recent years was merely about having found a common ground against the US, rather than the two viewing each other as truly trustworthy allies.
How would a Russian victory or a Russian defeat come into this picture? A Russian victory would definitely not be in the interest of China. By raising the population of the Eurasian Union, Russia’s broader sphere of influence, from 185 million to 226 million through the incorporation of Ukraine, and enhancing Russia’s strategic positions against the NATO and EU by eliminating a buffer country of 41 million inhabitants, Russia would become significantly stronger than it was before the war, and such a change would be close in geopolitical terms to a kind of re-establishment of the Soviet Union. Significantly stronger, which means less willing to cooperate with China, more willing to pursue its’ own great power agenda, to pursue it to a degree where it may even harm Chinese interests, aiming to position itself as a third player between the US and China equal to both, rather than the ally of China.
What a Russian Defeat Looks Like
However, a Russian defeat, which still seems to be possible, especially if it comes at the end of a prolonged war of attrition, significantly weakening Russia and isolating it from the West at the same time, would put it in a position where it would hardly have any other choice but to become a junior partner in a Sino-Russian alliance, if not a mere satellite of China. Russia’s military might, that which made it so far appear as China’s equal, has not only shown through this war to be way less formidable than the world thought, but has also suffered heavy losses, and will continue to suffer heavy losses as long as the war goes on. According to a 2020 leak by the Russian website Lenta for instance, Russia has less than 3,000 operational tanks; according to Ukrainian sources, more than 300 of them have already been destroyed, which means more than 10% of all tanks Russia has, in a mere two weeks. Oryx, an independent military blog on the other hand estimates the losses of Russia to be 181 tanks as of the morning of the 10th of March 2022. This number, though lower, still shows an alarming rate of 12 tanks on average lost each day, and even on this rate, Russia will lose 10% of its’ tanks by March 20.
Russia was said to have amassed 60% of its’ conventional ground arsenal on the border of Ukraine, and this rate has only risen since then. If such a momentous effort by Russia continues with such high losses, the Russian military will be a mere shell of its’ former self by the end, not to mention the damage done to Russia’s economy by the sanctions. Such a weakened Russia, isolated from the West, would have little choice but to ally itself with China on whatever terms the latter demands. This would provide China with a committed and docile strategic ally, and with access to the natural resources of Siberia.
The only major danger for China in case of a Russian defeat is the possibility of a pro-Western regime change. As more time passes with no particular advance of the Russian war effort in Ukraine, more and more discussion raises on the possibility of a possible coup against Vladimir Putin in case the war ends up in an obvious and undeniable fiasco for Russia, as in this case, all the sacrifice Russia had to suffer for the war would be proven to have been in vain. However, there are several factors to be taken into consideration here: First, in case of a Russian fiasco, a regime change is a mere possibility that may or may not happen, while in case of a Russian victory, the virtual reestablishment of the Soviet Empire would be a certainty, therefore, the latter one is a certain evil for China, while in case of a former one, the bad outcome is only a mere possibility for China. Vladimir Putin could very well stay in power, and in that case, a weakened Russia would be the most isolated from the West, thus the most dependent on an alliance with China.
Second, even if a regime change occurs, it is not at all sure whether it will be an elite change as well. It could easily happen in a way where the second line of Putin’s leadership simply removes Putin himself, putting the blame for their own responsibility in the war on him as well; however, they, and the United Russia party continue to govern the country. Third, if the regime change is not a mere insider job, but brings down the United Russia party and its’ elite itself, even then, throughout elections during the last decade, the two strongest Russian opposition parties were not pro-Western parties, but Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s far-right party and the Communists. Thus even if the United Russia party falls from power, then most likely it would be either Zhirinovsky, or the Communists, or an alliance of both that would take over the country, and not some pro-Western government. Fourth, even if somehow some pro-Western group attempts to take control, given the immense support of not only the United Russia party but of the Party of Zhirinovsky and the Communists, public support for anti-Western Russian nationalism seems to be so strong, that any pro-Western takeover attempt would likely end up in prolonged turmoil or even a civil war. This, however, as we will see, would be something that China could take advantage of.
Regarding the probability of Russia weakening as a result of the war, such a change will certainly happen if it ends with anything sort of an outright Russian victory. Moreover, Russia will likely end up not only weakened but weakened in a way that it will most likely never again achieve the position it had among the great powers of the world before the war. Russia’s demographic and economic resources are in fact so weak, that what is surprising is not the weakness its’ military shows in Ukraine, but more how it managed to remain so strong so long after the fall of the Soviet Union. Regarding the size of its’ population Russia is the mere 9th on the global ranking, behind countries like Bangladesh, Nigeria, and Pakistan. Regarding its’ economy, measured by its’ GDP on a nominal rate, it is merely the 11th, behind countries like Canada, Italy, and South Korea.
Moreover, as its’ economy is dominated by the exports of crude oil, natural gas, raw materials, and wheat, it is significantly less sophisticated than these economies. Given such weak positions in demographics and economy, Russia’s great power status was merely maintained due to what military capabilities it inherited from Soviet times, and a weakened international status after the war would merely mean it taking the rank for which its’ economic and demographic weight has already predestined it for anyway. Moreover, the mere exposure of the relative weakness of its’ military that the world is witnessing now is already a weakening of Russia’s international position, as earlier, the mere fact that the world perceived its’ military as much more powerful than it actually was conveyed a stronger international positioned. Thus, besides the actual military capabilities that Russia inherited from the Soviet Union, the mere general belief of it having been stronger than it actually was – this is a strength that it will never regain. Therefore, in the event of defeat, a weakened Russia isolated from the West finds itself in a position with no choice but to align itself with China, situating the country as junior partner in an alliance not only for a brief period until it recovers from the war, but for the long run, for decades to come.
The Siberia Factor
The key geopolitical factor in Sino-Russian relations above all is Siberia. The attitudes of China towards Siberia have long been the subject of discussion. Siberia, a vast, sparsely populated region rich in natural resources right next to China, and its’ gargantuan, resource-hungry economy obviously demands attention. Safe access to its’ natural resources would mean a most favorable guarantee for the security of China’s economy, while Siberia under hostile rule would be strangling for it. Thus declared or not, achieving safe access to Siberia’s natural resources is a de facto core geopolitical interest for China. Theoretically speaking, China can achieve this in two ways. One way, the nice and clean one, is via some kind of alliance with Russia.
The other one, the ugly way, is to grab Siberia or parts of it by force. In the case of an alliance with Russia, the weaker Russia is the better for China, as a strong, independent-minded Russia may use China’s reliance on Siberian resources against it, while a weak Russia is less likely to dare to do so. Regarding the ugly option, Siberia is strategically vulnerable to China to a great degree in many ways. East Siberia, east of the river Yenisei with its’s enormous area of more than 10 million square kilometers, covers about 60% of Russia’s territory, but at the same time, only about 10% of Russia’s population, 14 million people actually live there, while Manchuria and Inner-Mongolia, China’s neighboring northern regions have a combined population of no less than 123 million people.
In fact, East Siberia’s population of 14 million people is less than the urban area of each of the top three cities of China – Beijing, Shanghai, or Chongqing – and roughly equal to the population of Guangzhou or Tianjin, and it is also less than the population of Taiwan. Moreover, vast regions of East Siberia are autonomous federal subjects of indigenous Asian ethnic groups of Russia, where Russian rule has met some resistance every once in a while over the past centuries. On the other hand, however, as Russia is a nuclear power, such an attempt could likely mean nuclear war, which China would surely not dare to risk.
However, in the unlikely but not outright impossible case discussed above, if an obvious and undeniable fiasco in Ukraine triggers a coup or some other form of regime change in Russia that fails to take place quickly and smoothly and ends up in prolonged internal turmoil or even civil war, such a situation could be the “now or never” moment for China to march into Siberia, probably under the pretext of peacekeeping or something similar. This is however still a scenario of a very low likelihood, as a peculiar combination of events, factors and intents should take place for it to occur, so the more realistic scenario that China could, and possibly already is aspiring for is simply the one where the war weakens, and simultaneously isolates Russia from the West to such a degree where it has no other choice but to align itself with China and accept a junior role in the alliance. Although even in this case, given the strategic vulnerability of East Siberia, the mere undeclared possibility of the ugly option could easily be used by China to put Russia under psychological pressure any time the latter considers leaving the alliance.
We don’t know whether if China has rolled back its’ support for Russia for the reasons stated above or not. We do know, however, that if China wanted Russia to win, it would need to adopt a different approach than the one that it is following right now, and the Beijing elite is doubtlessly aware of this. China may have concerns about Western sanctions in case it provided additrional assistance, however as Beijing didn’t seem afraid to embark on a trade war with the US and Australia before, these concerns would unlikely prevent it from helping Russia if it saw a Russian victory as something vital for its’ global aspirations. Thus, the simplest explanation is that China doesn’t want Russia to win because a victorious Russia would likely become too assertive to handle, while a defeated, weakened, isolated Russia would have no choice but become a docile strategic ally of China, granting access to the natural resources of Siberia in the process. Given the fact that China seems to have been aware of the Russian plans to invade Ukraine from the very beginning, and encouraged Russia to do so, only to roll back its’ support once the war started, this all suggests that China may have been betting on a Russian defeat all along.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Geopoliticalmonitor.com