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What is China's Role in the War in Ukraine?

In a conflict involving the 2 world superpowers, the role of China could be transcendental in the development of the war in Ukraine

China's flag

Photo: Pixabay

LatinAmerican Post | Santiago Gómez Hernández

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Leer en español: ¿Cuál es el papel de China en la guerra en Ucrania?

The war in Ukraine, rather than involving Ukraine and NATO, has marked a kind of cold war between Russia and the United States. A clear example of the bipolarity that characterized the world during the post-war years. However, the recent rise of China makes its role today vital and could tip the global balance.

Today the experts are waiting for Xi Jinping's decision regarding the Russian conflict. On the one hand, he has refrained from criticizing Putin's decision, but he has not fully supported him either. Precisely, at the beginning of March, the UN General Assembly voted against the Russian invasion. Only 4 countries voted in favor of Russia: North Korea, Russia, Belarus, Syria, and Eritrea. Other governments close to Russia, such as Nicaragua, Cuba, and, especially, China, abstained, which is a very clear message to Russia about disagreement with its actions.

Now, for China to abstain from a vote that only affects its reputation. So, it's not a risk for Russia or its bilateral relationship. At this time when the West closes the front against Russia and its allies, Putin finds his best ally in his neighbor to the east, and China knows it.

China Knows How to Take Advantage of Multipolarity

From the height of the Cold War, China's role has always been one of imbalance. This was the country that "tied the tie" in any conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union. It never finally aligned itself with any of the superpowers and that allowed it to simply look after its interests and take advantage of the context of each situation.

This methodical past, typical of Chinese diplomacy, could be an indicator of the decisions that the Asian giant would take during the conflict in Ukraine. China does not need to take sides. It will remain as a judge and arbitrator and act according to its interests. He already did it in the tensest moments of the Cold War and can repeat his role. One thing we can be sure of, China will not risk its economic security or its territorial security for Russia, Ukraine, or any other country.

China has tried to play as a neutral country. It is clear that the moment he decides to take sides, he would tip the balance, but he would also be affected. Being part of the multiple sanctions that the West is implementing would bring about a global economic crisis. But losing an ally like Putin would leave the United States and Europe in a position of power that even China itself is not interested in or convenient for.

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Trade Between China and Russia

China and Russia have maintained a trade and cooperation relationship for decades. Their common border forces them to maintain a cordial and close relationship. However, the trade between the two does not end up being as relevant as the one they both have with the United States or Europe.

Even though in 2021 the commercial exchange reached a maximum of almost 147,000 million dollars (36% more than in 2020), according to the World Bank, both countries still depend on the West. According to data from the World Trade Organization, Russia's main trading partner is the European Union, ahead of China (second). But for China, Russia does not appear in the top 5 (United States, European Union, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Japan).

So, as much as trade increases, putting trade relations with Europe or the United States at risk does not seem like a good deal for China. Less when Russia is also facing a possible and even imminent economic crisis.

Chinese Crisis

Now, it is also important to note that the China of 2022 is not the same China of the last decade. The Coronavirus crisis, the real estate crisis represented in Evergrande, and an energy crisis have left the Chinese economy weakened.

It is not the best time for the superpower to embark on a new economic war with the West just for Russia. This shows that, for now, China will only wait and see.

How Does China Take Advantage of Russia?

This crisis in Europe may also give China more clarity in the immediate future to make the most of it. When Putin has all the doors closed in the West, China is aware that it will only be able to search for them. This is precisely what this country does best.

We have already seen how, with Venezuela, China supported a government in crisis, being the only "debtor". But he also knows that the more cornered the other is, the better conditions he can get. The economic agreements that China negotiates with Russia from now on will leave the People's Republic in the best conditions. Of course, as long as this does not entail economic sanctions from the West, it will go to the limits that are allowed.

However, something very valuable that China is taking out does not imply anything economic. China is getting valuable information. Now, this country is faithfully recording the maneuvers that the United States and the West are carrying out against another nuclear power. This will be vital if, soon, China decides to resume its expansionist aspirations and annex territories such as Taiwan or consolidate its dominance in the South China Sea. If this were to happen, China is already aware of one of how the West can act (keeping differences in context).