China threatened by unbreakable bond with Russia

Former superpower becoming burden on political and economic fronts alike

Sep. 12, 2022

A photograph of top Chinese and Russian leaders shaking hands is displayed at a museum near the border bridge between China and Russia.

Taiwan is not the only diplomatic issue facing China. Like the rest of the world, China is also struggling to cope with the Ukraine crisis.

On Feb. 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine, the Chinese Embassy in Ukraine immediately urged the more than 6,000 Chinese nationals residing in the Eastern European country to exercise caution.

They were specifically urged to conspicuously display the Chinese flag on their vehicles when traveling by car.

Ukraine is a strategic nation for the Belt and Road Initiative being promoted by Chinese President Xi Jinping's government to create a massive economic zone linking China to Europe by land and sea.

Ukraine is a hub for cargo transportation to Europe. China has in addition accumulated local investments in sectors such as agriculture and telecommunications. Many of the coronavirus vaccines widely used in Ukraine are also Chinese-made.

China was confident that it would be able to act as a bridge between Ukraine and Russia.

Beijing expected Ukraine would play a central role in cargo transportation between China and Europe. (Photo posted on a social media account of the Chinese Embassy in Ukraine)

But only two days later, the Chinese Embassy in Ukraine drastically changed its policy. It urged Chinese residing in Ukraine not to identify themselves as Chinese.

While major countries have stepped up criticism of Russia one after another, China has repeated words and actions that seem to defend Russia. In China, where information is strictly controlled, online posts that disparage Ukraine circulate. Anti-Chinese sentiment has grown quickly in Ukraine.

China is seeking to overtake the U.S. not only economically but also in terms of international influence.

The Xi government advocates "major-country diplomacy with Chinese characteristics" and does not hide its challenge to the traditional order. China also is distancing itself from the West over the Ukraine crisis.

As part of such efforts, China is reaching out to Africa and Pacific island nations to conduct its own diplomacy. But as things stand now, the odds are against China. That is because a strong Russia, which China counts on, is becoming a thing of the past.

Yan Xuetong, China's leading scholar of international politics and head of the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University, pointed out at a news conference in June that the U.S. now sees a threat from Russia as only comparable with those from Iran, Syria or North Korea.

The U.S. has taken measures to drive a wedge between China and Russia in rapid succession.

The Senate on July 27 adopted a resolution calling for Russia to be recognized as "a state sponsor of terrorism."

If the U.S. Department of State gives the go-ahead to the move, Russia will join the "new axis" of countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism, which currently include Syria, Cuba, Iran and North Korea.

China invited Russian President Vladimir Putin as the guest of honor to the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February. The ceremony was broadcast around the world.

As China and Russia have moved ever closer together, the latter has become a bigger drag on the former.

Meanwhile, China's flagship Belt and Road Initiative is also wavering.

The headquarters of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in Beijing. (Reuters)

Jin Liqun, president of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), held an emergency in-house meeting at its headquarters in Beijing in March and declared that loans to Russia and Belarus would be put on hold for the time being and reconsidered.

Jin's declaration came after rumors swirled that the AIIB would move to support Russia.

Jin feared that if the China-led AIIB increased loans to Russia, it might suffer due to the fallout from the Ukrainian crisis, as the idea was emerging in the U.S. Congress of adding the multilateral development bank to the U.S. sanctions list.

Jin made the declaration about loans to Russia and Belarus to forestall such a possibility. But people involved in the AIIB are worried, with one of them frankly acknowledging: "Russia is the third-largest shareholder. We cannot give it the cold shoulder in the future."

Xi is steadily consolidating his power and on the verge of securing an unusual third term as the Communist Party's general secretary. The unrivaled strength of the Chinese leader has had a chilling effect on those around him.

"China cannot be tied to Putin and needs to be cut off as soon as possible," government adviser Hu Wei is said to have frankly told the upper echelons of the Communist Party in March.

Hu currently serves as vice chairman of the Public Policy Research Center of the Counselor's Office of the State Council, China's cabinet. But despite Hu's advice, China's policy remains unchanged. About-faces are not allowed in "major-country diplomacy."

Heihe is a city on the border with Russia in the northeastern Chinese province of Heilongjiang. On June 10, countless red flags symbolizing China fluttered in the wind on a bridge leading to the opposite side of the Amur River, known as the Heilong Jiang in China.

Red flags symbolizing China flutter on the border bridge between China and Russia that opened in June.

The bridge formally opened on that day. It was built at a cost of around 2.5 billion yuan ($360 million) to transport 4 million tonnes of cargo and 2 million travelers to Russia annually.

Photographs of the top Chinese and Russian leaders shaking hands firmly at the Russian presidential office are on display at a nearby museum.

The Chinese-Russian border, which spans more than 4,000 kilometers, has been a source of conflict for many years, with the area around the Russian city of Blagoveshchensk, just across the Amur River from Heihe, once part of China during the Qing Dynasty.

But it is rapidly changing to a symbol of reconciliation. "Russia is the biggest friendly country. If [China] does not get along with it, the U.S. will try to defeat [China and Russia] separately," a 53-year-old Chinese who grew up locally said with a serious expression.

As the reversal in the Chinese and Russian positions progresses, it is becoming more likely China will make Russia economically subject to it. The familiar scene of an alliance leader supporting satellite states under its umbrella overtly and covertly is about to be repeated.

Yasuhiro Matsuda, a professor at the University of Tokyo, predicted that China "will have no choice but to carry the 'large North Korea' named Russia on its back to the end of the chapter."

The age of "Great China" will also usher in a more turbulent period.

Communist Party's internal power struggle intensifies

Meanwhile, the Xi regime appears on the surface to be rock-solid but is actually wavering over how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Politburo Standing Committee is the Communist Party's top decision-making body. Even if Xi secures a third term as the party's general secretary this autumn at its next national congress, held every five years, it is unclear whether he will be able to fill the committee with his proteges.

Two important meetings held on May 5 illustrated the situation. One was a meeting of the Politburo Standing Committee, presided over by Xi as the ruling party's chief, and the other was an executive meeting of the State Council.

Xi called for the thorough implementation of the zero-COVID policy, vowing to firmly fight any words and actions that question or reject it.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang at the opening ceremony of the annual session of the National People's Congress, China's parliament, in March. (Reuters)

On the same day, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang delivered a speech at the executive meeting of the State Council.

Li pointed out that the Chinese economy was in dire straits and unveiled support measures for micro, small and medium-size companies, including tax reductions and increased loans. Yet he did not express his support for Xi or the zero-COVID policy.

It is now a foregone conclusion that Xi will secure a third term at the helm of the Communist Party. But that does not mean the power struggle within the party will end. Xi's battle to fill the new Chinese leadership team with as many close aides as possible can be said to be ongoing.

During his first five-year term in power, starting in 2012, Xi focused his efforts on eliminating the rival party faction led by former President Jiang Zemin in the name of fighting corruption.

Many Jiang faction members were arrested in Xi's signature anti-corruption campaign, including faction heavyweight Zhou Yongkang and promising next-generation faction leaders such as Sun Zhengcai.

Zhou, a former Politburo Standing Committee member, was said to be former Vice President Zeng Qinghong's right-hand man and leader of the "oil faction," while Sun, a former Communist Party secretary in Chongqing, was seen as the most likely candidate to become the next premier.

During his second five-year term from 2017, Xi pressed ahead with the consolidation of powers and interests seized from senior Jiang faction members.

There are currently seven Politburo Standing Committee members, including Xi. Although it cannot be said that the six other members are completely under Xi's influence, none can take him on squarely.

The previously established system of collective leadership now exists only in name.

Although Xi is a "princeling," one of the children of senior Communist Party officials, he lacked his own political power until he became the party's general secretary.

Xi found competent personnel during his stints in Fujian, Zhejiang, Shanghai and elsewhere and elevated them to important posts as he rose through the ranks. Among them are Ding Xuexiang, Li Qiang, Chen Min'er and Huang Kunming, four former subordinates who now serve as, respectively, the head of the Communist Party's General Office, the party secretary of Shanghai, the party secretary of Chongqing and the head of the party's Publicity Department.

Li Xi, now the party secretary of Guangdong Province, is also among Xi's close aides. He once served as the top official of a place closely linked to Xi.

Speculation previously spread that Xi would not only make his proteges candidates for the Politburo Standing Committee but also choose the next premier from among them, in defiance of party custom, despite none of them being a vice premier.

Such a scenario has collapsed due to the scourge of the pandemic. The zero-COVID policy has dealt a serious blow to the Chinese economy, resulting in the spread of discontent across the country.

It has also become unclear to what degree Xi will be able to get his way.

There is a possibility that Vice Premier Hu Chunhua, who once served as the first secretary of the Communist Youth League and has continued to be sidelined by Xi, will emerge again as a candidate for premier.

China's behind-the-scenes power struggle has entered a new phase and will intensify further.