Gathering in the Japanese city of Hiroshima this past weekend, leaders of the G7 issued a stern condemnation of both China and Russia, and particularly Beijing’s tacit support for Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. Any hope of undermining that relationship, however, appears to have been futile, as China and Russia moved to further strengthen their partnership in the face of Western hostility.
Landing in a Beijing decked out with Russian flags on Wednesday, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin became the highest-ranking Kremlin official to visit China since the war broke out. Meeting his Chinese counterpart Li Qiang, he signed a number of new economic deals.
At a business forum in Shanghai the day before, Mr. Mishustin predicted bilateral trade this year would top the record high of US$190-billion in 2022, and boasted of Russia’s strong economy despite “unprecedented sanctions.”
“None of what our detractors dreamed of happened. We have not only survived, but continue to move forward,” he added. “Our country is oriented towards dynamically developing markets. We have expanded trade contacts with the fast-growing economies. These words fully apply to our great friend, China.”
Mr. Mishustin, as well as multiple members of his delegation, including Herman Gref, the head of Russia’s biggest bank, and Economic Development Minister Maxim Reshetnikov, are subject to Canadian and other Western sanctions related to the war in Ukraine.
“China is ready to double down on its relationship with Russia following the G7 summit,” said Alexander Korolev, a senior lecturer and expert on China-Russia relations at the University of New South Wales. “There is a growing recognition in Beijing that its relations with the United States will not improve, and in the context of deepening geopolitical divide and confrontation, it makes sense to get closer to Russia.”
This is particularly true if Beijing follows through on plans to seize the self-ruled island of Taiwan by force, something China has suggested it will do if “peaceful reunification” is not a possibility. Japan has drawn a direct connection between Taiwan and Ukraine, and support for Taipei from the G7 has increased substantially in the past year, though some European countries are less firm in defying Chinese aggression toward the island.
In Hiroshima on Friday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said member states had an “unwavering commitment to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” and “are collectively opposing any unilateral change to the status quo, particularly by force.”
On Monday, the Chinese state-run Global Times newspaper accused the U.S. of trying to “replicate the ‘Ukraine crisis’ in the Asia-Pacific.”
“No doubt, the U.S. strategy is to deepen divisions among Asian countries, and even launch a proxy war in Asia, similar to what it did in the Middle East and Europe,” Li Haidong, a professor with the China Foreign Affairs University, told the paper. “It is pulling Japan and South Korea to its side to act as its vassals, which is alarming.”
Moscow has attempted to underline this in its own messaging. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the G7 summit had been aimed “at dual containment of Russia and the People’s Republic of China,” while former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev said NATO was trying “to get a foothold” in Asia through U.S.-led alliances such as AUKUS and the Quad, both of which released statements targeted at China during the Hiroshima meetings.
That sense of an increasingly inevitable conflict and that China may itself one day face a barrage of Western sanctions and pressure has pushed the two countries closer together, said Dr. Korolev. “To put it bluntly, the way Beijing reads it is that if Russia falls, you are next.”
Mr. Mishustin’s visit to Beijing this week comes as China’s special representative to Ukraine, Li Hui, is due to arrive in Russia. His appointment followed a phone call in April between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the first time the two men had spoken since the war. Mr. Li is a former Chinese ambassador to Russia.
Multiple analysts said Mr. Li’s role was more about optics than anything else, aimed at improving Beijing’s credibility in the developing world, where support for ending the Ukraine war at any cost is strongest.
“China likely views its diplomatic efforts as affording it a greater role to determine the course of the war, which it views as being manipulated and prolonged by the United States,” Bonny Lin, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote last week. “Diplomacy could allow Beijing to deflect criticism, to try to set a new narrative about the conflict and to potentially shape the outcome in ways that would be beneficial to it.”
Ms. Lin said China’s role in mediating talks involving North Korea and a recent rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran shows Beijing is more comfortable as a facilitator than putting forward its own actionable proposals.
But neither Ukraine nor Russia are at the stage where they are willing to seriously negotiate or compromise, said Dr. Korolev.
“China knows very well that Ukraine is not going to negotiate unless it is defeated on the battlefield, which is not happening yet,” he told The Globe. “I don’t think that China is serious about mediation, serious about ending the war.”
As well as gaining support in the developing world, Dr. Korolev said Mr. Li could also test Western, and particularly European, cohesion, both for continuing the high-pressure campaign against Russia, and any potential similar action against Beijing were it to follow through on threats against Taiwan.
“What China is thinking about is Taiwan in the next few years, and it wants to know where Europe stands and whether it’s going to support unconditionally the U.S. in a hypothetical military confrontation with China,” Dr. Korolev said.