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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury


Updated: Mar 22, 2023

The war did not stop through the winter months, but it slowed, and news seemed to slow too. Now there seems to be a flurry of developments.

Two main ones. Last week ended with the International Criminal Court issuing an arrest warrant for Vladimir Putin, and this week has begun with Chinese premier Xi Jinping's three-day state visit to Russia. (Although it seems to have concluded today, on day two?)

Economies and war

China's position in the war has been closely watched. The widespread view early on was that China would not want to be seen taking Russia's side because its trade with the western states was of much greater value to it. The argument being that China wouldn't choose to run the risk of either direct sanctions or secondary sanctions. Let's call this the Superior Trade Argument for China's neutrality.

But not all trade is equal and, while China's trade with "the west" is several times greater than its trade with Russia, I think it can be reasonably argued that access to Russian hydrocarbons, especially at a reduced cost, is more important to China than much of the trade it does with western states for whom it is increasingly less cost-efficient as an assembly shop owing to its growing wealth. I think I'm right in saying much of what was previously Made in China is now being made in south-east Asia.

And China still wants Russia's oil and gas. One topic on the agenda for this week's talks was the construction of a second Power of Siberia pipeline for Russian gas deliveries to China via Mongolia; Putin said today that the three countries have concluded an agreement. Naysayers will point to the low volume of gas deliveries to China compared to what Russia has historically delivered to Europe, but that reflects the absence of infrastructure rather than demand, an issue that is being addressed.

Moreover, the latest data show that China-Russia trade growing substantially year-on-year. Russia obviously looks east because much of its past trading links with west are lost. So the Superior Trade Argument needs some context at least. The numbers alone overlook the potentially different significance to China of what is traded. But China, increasingly assertive in its foreign policy over recent years, may be keeping back from expanding its support to Russia for reasons other than economics. It may be because of waterbirds, which I'll get to in a few moments.

War and the liberal order

Global politics often plays out in a long timeframe and many early assessments made by analysts during the war may end up looking less than sound later. A crucial point to grasp is that China and Russia both see themselves as pitted against the US in a contest for global power and influence.

Strategically, China benefits from a war depleting rival great powers. And while the United States is not directly at war with Russia, it is devoting significant intelligence and military resources to Ukraine. I stand by my view that it is right to see the US and its NATO allies being engaged in a proxy war. It is glib to say that western states are solely supporting Ukraine for its own defence: yes, the west wants Ukraine to fend off the invader and regain its territory and be safe from future harm, but far more is at stake in the international order.

With the US and Russia locking horns, China stands to benefit from what the historian Geoffrey Blainey called the waterbirds' dilemma. (Excuse the mixed metaphor.) While two waterbirds exhaust themselves in a fight over a fish, an onlooking fisherman steals the prize from under them. Thus, a war risks leaving the two fighting sides ("the waterbirds") weakened as they fight over a fish, and the one looking on ("the fisherman") will take advantage and "snatch the fish away." China's power increases relative to the warring parties, and the longer the war goes on, the more the US and its allies commit resources to defend Ukraine, the more likely it is that the US will find itself in the position of a waterbird alongside Russia. So China is best to keep outside the fray and let the other major powers weaken themselves.

Meanwhile, as the US is indirectly expending resources it is also distracted from the Asia-Pacific. All to China's benefit. But it's more than that, for Russia is challenging the so-called rules-based liberal international order, something China itself has been mounting a sustained challenge to over recent years. All the while Russia is waging a contest against the western-dominated rules-based liberal order it is in effect a proxy for China's foreign policy goals.

Together the two states share a long-stated goal of moving the global order away from unipolarity towards multipolarity, and as China creates a shadow institutional framework that could eventually supplant the institutions of the liberal order, then Russia - committed too to revising the current order - will be a helpful makeweight for it.

Consequently, in geostrategic terms, it's hardly in China's interest to see Russia defeated outright. While it is unlikely that Russia will be defeated in the short term, western support shows no signs of wavering - and, given the threat they perceive to the rules-based liberal order, western states cannot risk letting support waver. Two eastern European states last week said they will supply fighter jets to Ukraine, and the UK and US have both pledged more ammunition.

China knows that it is not only economically stronger than Russia, but that its security influence is growing as well. Beijing surely wouldn't mind if Russia happened to give the US a bloody nose along the way as China bides its time expecting to rise to the top of the global pecking order, above both the US and Russia, but it may be realising it needs to give Russia more support along the way if it is to bloody America's nose. China may be thinking its position as the fisherman in a waterbirds' dilemma is in jeopardy.


So the confidence many analysts had last year of China's neutrality warrants appreciable doubt. China has no strategic interest in Ukraine's cause directly. Its "peace plan" perhaps represents a last ditch hope it won't have to get more involved, but it has been rightly and widely mocked by diplomats. No one (aside from Putin!) sees any prospects for its plan. More significantly, Xi's talks with Putin, without giving equal time or attention to Zelenskyy, really do show how marginal the issue of Ukraine's sovereignty is to China's leaders.

China's leaders, whatever they thought about Russia's decision to invade, probably see the war as an inconvenience from which they could gain. Perhaps the downplaying of an incident in the Central African Republic on the eve of Xi's trip to Moscow shows that. Certainly some reports blamed the killing of Chinese nationals on Russian mercenaries and the incident could have marred the visit. But the Chinese appear to have wanted that talks between the two leaders ran smoothly.

And earlier today NATO's Secretary-General publicly claimed that the alliance has evidence Russia has asked for "lethal aid" from China. There are clearly growing worries about China propping up Russia's military campaign more robustly. There are straws in the wind, and the winds are gaining strength.

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