Ian Johnson

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised multiple questions on China’s relationship with Russia, Taiwan, and the USA. CFR-scholar Ian Johnson looks at the CFR-blog at a wide range of the international fallout of recent affairs. And can and will China bail out Putin from the economic and financial sanctions?

Ian Johnson:

Could China’s economic relationship with Russia make sanctions ineffective?

It is unlikely that China immediately offers aid to Russia, but it could easily become the long-term buyer of gas and other resources that Russia can’t sell to Western countries. On Friday, it announced that it would loosen restrictions on Russian grain imports, but this had been in the works for some time.

Overall, changing the flow of resources will not happen overnight. Pipelines take many years to construct, so China can’t suddenly step in to buy sanctioned goods, such as natural gas that would have been carried by the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. But in the coming years, China can offset sanctions by becoming a no-questions-asked buyer of Russian resources.

Could Putin’s invasion embolden Xi to increase pressure on Taiwan?

China’s foreign ministry has said clearly that Ukraine and Taiwan are not the same. While China views Taiwan as an inalienable part of its territory, it considers Ukraine a fully sovereign country. But on a deeper level, the logic is similar.

Both the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation are descendants of large, continental, multiethnic empires. The twentieth century saw China lose Mongolia and Taiwan in the aftermath of the Qing dynasty’s collapse. China no longer claims Mongolia, but it still wants Taiwan and hasn’t ruled out taking it by force. Russia fared worse when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. It lost most of Central Asia, as well as territories in Europe, including the Baltic states, many parts of the Caucasus, Belarus, and Ukraine. Russia seems to have given up on recapturing Central Asia (content, perhaps, to have loyal strongmen run those countries) but clearly wants segments of its European territories back.

Russia’s situation is something nationalists in China can clearly identify with. So if Russia can grab chunks of Ukraine or install a puppet regime and withstand economic sanctions, that could embolden nationalists in China to look to Taiwan and think they could do the same.

Is the United States likely to work with China in responding to the invasion?

In an ideal world, the United States would be able to restart high-level dialogue with China. It could then remind Beijing that its future is as a global leader, engaging and competing with advanced countries, not slumming with energy-state autocracies such as Russia.

But there is little hope of this happening, because ties between Washington and Beijing remain too frayed by recent developments. The current situation will likely persist, with Beijing taking potshots from the side while other countries try to save Ukraine’s autonomy.

More questions and answers at the CFR blog.

Ian Johnson is a speaker at the China Speakers Bureau. Do you need him at your (online) meeting or conference? Do get in touch or fill in our speakers’ request form.

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