In March, the new foreign minister of China, Qin Gang, waxed eloquent about the state of Sino-Russian relations. “The more unstable the world becomes the more imperative it is for China and Russia to steadily advance their relations . . . The strategic partnership will surely grow from strength to strength.”
That struck some in the West as disingenuous. After all, Russia is getting a bloody nose in Ukraine, which is not only embarrassing from a power politics point of view (who wants to be seen as backing the losing horse?) but has also served to increase the unity and size of NATO. Furthermore, the Chinese were apparently told by the Russians to expect a more limited “special military operation”—not a full-scale invasion, complete with crimes against humanity. A crippled ally may turn out to be a burden and a hindrance; an ally that potentially crosses the nuclear threshold spells disaster.
And China’s got bigger fish to fry, after all. It dreams of supplanting the Western-led order with a China-led one, and it plans its own invasion of a territory it considers part of its national heritage. Some feel that China’s recently proposed twelve-point peace plan shows its desire to see its ally Russia back down from a long, grinding proxy war with the West while saving face. Negotiations over such a ceasefire would also save China the painful choice of whether or not to bring down Western economic sanctions on its head if it were to be forced to arm the Russians lest they be defeated.
After all, it was the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu who stated, “Victory comes from finding opportunities in problems.” While there are definitely some downsides to China in its current relationship with Russia, there’s also a very bright side.
A stumbling ally becomes even more dependent on you—as China has become indispensable to Russia’s survival, and that offers China significant leverage over its neighbor. Beijing has already negotiated big price cuts on the energy resources it buys from Moscow. Russia needs the rubles, and China is quite willing to play ball, for a price. In addition to those energy price cuts, China has negotiated favorable terms for Chinese investment in key Russian infrastructure, such as roads and ports, and even farmland. Though the terms of these agreements are not public, similar Chinese investments in other countries have been conditional on greater-than-average control over the resulting assets.
Much of the Chinese investment is concentrated in the Russian Far East, which has depopulated so rapidly in recent years that it is experiencing an astounding -33 percent population “growth” rate. It is interesting, then, that noted academic Yan Yuetong, writing in Foreign Affairs last year, commented, “Soon after the conflict began, some anti-Russia Chinese netizens began rehashing the unfairness of the 1858 Treaty of Aigun, which ceded roughly 230,000 square miles of Chinese territory to Russia.” The 1860 Treaty of Peking, which saw an even greater swath of northeastern China given to the Russians, has also been brought up. A de facto Chinese colonization of the Russian Far East might be one of the opportunities Beijing sees given the weakened state of its neighbor to the north, which could play into China’s new “Polar Silk Road” initiative.
There are a few other side perks from the hobbling of Russia, such as that nation’s dramatic decrease in its international arms sales. Not only can China take over some of these accounts, but it also means that countries China doesn’t want to see armed by Russia, such as Vietnam, find their supply line cut.
At the same time though, China is also measuring how the entire situation helps or hurts its vision of retaking Taiwan in the near term. While surely the ineptness of the Russians must give China pause—its own soldiers and officers are as untested in battle as the Russians were—arming the Ukrainians is expensive and is rapidly depleting Western stocks of weapons systems and ammunition. For example, the UK government just released a report stating it will take the country ten full years to replace the weapons stocks gifted to Ukraine. There are rumblings from the DC Beltway that the United States is also running low on some systems and ammo because of what it has sent to Ukraine.
So while the Biden administration has been purposefully aiding the Taiwan government at a higher level and frequency than previous presidents have, how long can the United States figuratively burn the candle at both ends without impairing its own ability to fight? Having America entangled in the long, drawn-out slugfest that is the Ukrainian war is very much in China’s national interest.
Is Russia an albatross around China’s neck? Or, alternatively, is Russia’s weakness providing a wealth of opportunities for China to secure its own national interests? Great strategists see opportunity in problems, and the homeland of Sun Tzu is certainly no exception.
Valerie M. Hudson is professor and George H.W. Bush chair in the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University.