The Ukrainian crisis as a case study for the Russian-Chinese axis


By Dr. Shay Har-Zvi​​ | February, 2022

Leaders of China and Russia
Photo: | CC BY 4.0


Despite the historical animosity and competition between Russia and China, it seems that the two countries have reached a strategic decision to deepen the cooperation in order to shape a new world order, and neutralize what they perceive as Washington's increased interference in their "back yard". President Putin has demonstrated this perception when stating that "the partnership has no limits and there are no 'forbidden' areas of cooperation".


However, the Ukrainian crisis raises question marks about the strength of the ties and whether it is a solid axis. It seems that the escalation in the conflict and especially the sharp and cohesive reaction of the West against Russia, puts China in a trap. On the one hand, the deepening of cooperation with Russia is intended to form a counterweight to American dominance, and therefore a Russian failure in the confrontation may, in Beijing's view, adversely affect its position in the global arena and its aspirations in Asia in particular. On the other hand, it seems that China is not willing to be dragged to a dangerous confrontation, and therefore an unqualified support in Russia, which is now perceived as a leper and isolated country, could damage the broad cooperation, especially in the economic fields, with the United States and European countries.


Accordingly, China is taking a cautious approach. Thus, it refrains from condemning the Russian's invasion of the Ukraine, and calls in accordance with its traditional view that the conflict should be resolved by diplomatic means. Moreover, many positive reactions to President Putin have been recorded on Chinese websites and social networks. It is likely that if the Chinese regime had wanted to, it could have influenced, at least to some extent, the content and scope of support for Russia. On the opposing side, The Chinese decision to refrain and not to use its veto power in the vote that took place in the Security Council regarding the demand from Russia to withdraw its forces from the Ukraine, may be intended to send a message to Russia about its dissatisfaction with the way the conflict has developed, partly due to the consequences to global stability and energy prices.


In any case, the depth of the Chinese willingness to give Russia political and economic backing, while risking sanctions on itself, will determine whether the emerging axis is becoming a solid strategic alliance or whether it is a fragile axis with a glass ceiling.



President Putin's visit to China


President Putin's visit to China for the opening of the Winter Olympics, particularly in light of the western leaders' diplomatic boycott, attested to the importance that both countries attribute to their bilateral relations. More importantly, the two leaders' joint statement reflected their shared interests, and may be interpreted as a declaration of intentions to establish a Russian-Chinese axis that would change the current world order. Thus, the two countries have expressed their objection to "NATO's continued expansion"; called for it to "abandon its ideologized Cold War approaches"; noted their opposition to "external forces' attempts to destabilize" the regions bordering on their territories; and undertook to deepen their collaboration to thwart "color revolutions". 



Security and Military cooperation


China is the second largest importer of Russian weapons. The breakthrough in the two countries' security and military cooperation took place in 2015, just 12 months after Russia invaded Crimea, and following a decade of decline in their security relations. To mark their partnership, Russia and China had signed a comprehensive agreement for the purchase of S-400 air defense systems and SU-35 fighter jets. According to research institute SIPRI, between 2016 and 2020 there was a 49% increase in Russian weapons sales to China compared to 2011 to 2015. 18% of all Russian export was to China, and 77% of China's imported weapons in those years had originated in Russia.


In November 2021, Russia and China agreed on another roadmap (the previous one having been signed in 2017) for military collaboration for 2021 to 2025. The two countries had even broadened the scope of their joint military exercises. Thus, since the second half of 2021, they conducted several joint military exercise (the last one with Iran).


Moreover, the fact that, in recent months, Russia had redeployed large military forces that had been stationed in the Far East on the border it shares with the Ukraine and carry out its joint exercise with Belarus reflects the Russian leadership's sense of security that the scope of forces in the East may be reduced with no fear of Chinese provocations.



The broadening of economic ties


Another aspect that has seen the forging of closer ties between Russia and China is the economic, including trade scopes. Thus, in 2021, the scope of trade had grown by 35.8% compared to 2020, amounting to 146.88 billion USD. Russian export to China had risen by 37.5%, amounting to 79.32 billion USD, whereas Chinese export had increased by 33.8%, amounting to 67.56 billion USD. According to President Putin, trade between the two countries could reach some 200 billion USD within the next 3 years.


A key factor in the economic partnership between Russia and China is the energy sector. The two countries have recently signed another agreement for the supply of natural gas, whereby Russia will provide China with 10 billion cubic meters (BCM) of gas per year for a period of 30 years, so that the overall amount of gas supplied by Russia annually would be 48 BCM. Payment for the gas supplied would be made in Euros, not Dollars, probably in an attempt to minimize the impact of U.S. sanctions. In addition, during President Putin's visit in early February, the two leaders had agreed that the Chinese restrictions imposed on the import of wheat from Russia would be lifted. Interestingly, the announcement of these understandings was made just days before Russia invaded the Ukraine, probably to convey a message indicating China's support of Russia.



Implications for Israel


A deeper collaboration between Russia and China has far-reaching implications for the international architecture formed over the past 3 decades, since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The United States is likely to set up a counter-axis vis-à-vis the Russian-Chinese one, and expand its alliances against the two powers as means of taking AUKUS to the next level – a step that is likely to aggravate the global competition between the two camps.


For Israel, these developments create risks and opportunities on a strategic level and from a security perspective. On the one hand, the more this struggle between the great powers gains momentum, the more Israel will be required to conduct itself with greater sensitivity and caution than ever before vis-à-vis both Russia and China to avoid poking the American bear. Moreover, any damage to the U.S. international image of power, particularly in the Middle East, directly projects on Israel's status in these arenas as well.


Russian and Chinese efforts in the Middle East could also manifest themselves in the advancements of security and military collaborations with countries in the region, especially Iran (which is perceived as the natural partner against the United States and its allies), and include the willingness to sell cutting-edge weapons systems and technologies. Should this scenario indeed take place, it would be very likely to lead to an accelerated regional arms race (especially by the Gulf states and Egypt, who would be striving, first and foremost, to purchase western weapons) that could pose a challenge to Israel's qualitative military edge (QME).


On the other hand, the possibility of greater Russian-Chinese involvement in the Middle East, and the resources that the United States would be (reluctantly) required to allocate to the region could help Israel bolster its strategic alliance and special relations with the United States, as well as demonstrate its valuableness to it as an ally and essential partner in a wide range of areas associated with the great power struggles. At the same time, opportunities may be presented to Israel for promoting security collaborations with Sunni countries by way of responding to the growing challenge posed by Iran, and the possible cultivation of closer relations between it, Russia and China. In any event, Israel should actively maintain its security coordination mechanism with Russia, which is essential to its freedom of action in Syria.




Authored by Dr. Shay Har-Zvi, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.



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