Beijing throws weight behind Moscow: China-Russia weekly update

Foreign Affairs

China’s foreign minister told his U.S. counterpart that Russia has legitimate security concerns in Ukraine. But could a Putin military move delay an enormous Siberian gas pipeline deal?

russian tanks near border of ukraine
Russian mechanized infantry holds drills in the Rostov region, Russia on January 27, 2022. REUTERS/Sergey Pivovarov

All diplomatic hell broke loose after Bloomberg reported that Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 could have asked Putin to delay an invasion of Ukraine. According to Bloomberg’s diplomatic source, Xi may have asked Putin to pause any invasion until after the Beijing Winter Olympic Games conclude on February 20.

  • Both diplomatic corps rushed to perform damage control.
  • The Chinese embassy in Moscow denied the claim in a statement to a Russian state-run media outlet, calling the Bloomberg report a “hoax and provocation.”
  • The Russian ambassador to China, Andrey Denisov, held a press conference and stated that Russia was informing China about the progress of U.S.-Russia security consultations.

However, Beijing affirmed its support for Vladimir Putin’s government. In a phone conversation (in Chinese) today with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Chinese Foreign Minister Wáng Yì 王毅 threw his support behind Russia more explicitly: “Russia’s legitimate security concerns should be taken seriously and addressed,” he said.

  • Wang also lambasted Western collective security measures: “The security of one country cannot be at the expense of compromising the security of other countries, and regional security cannot be guaranteed by strengthening or even expanding military blocs.”

All quiet on the Ukrainian front, for now

Despite Putin’s likely impending invasion, which would likely bring thousands or even tens of thousands of deaths in its first days, life is mostly (and bizarrely) normal in Kyiv.

  • The Chinese embassy in Kyiv recently hosted a reception for the 30th anniversary of bilateral diplomatic relations. A cross section of Ukraine’s political parties, including a Russia-affiliated one, were represented at the event.
  • When will Chinese diplomats and/or their dependents leave the country? NATO countries, including the U.S., have already pulled out nonessential personnel. Relatedly, a 2017 Kyiv Post article claimed that about 30,000 Chinese reside in Ukraine.

But how will China respond if Putin’s war results in the deaths of Chinese nationals?

Natural gas pipeline deal

The Ukraine crisis is unfolding alongside an economic tie-up between Russia and China: a massive natural gas pipeline deal that Western critics say underpins, in part, the two countries’ closer relations.

  • Russian ambassador to China Andrei Denisov said that negotiations for the prospective deal — called the Power of Siberia 2 (PoS-2) — are being discussed in a “high degree of readiness of the final documents.”
  • If the two sides don’t reach an agreement before the Olympics, they will likely have to wait at least several months to finalize negotiations: If Putin decides to launch the deadliest military conflict in Europe since the Second World War, China will likely seek to avoid guilt-by-association and avoid any splashy deals with Putin for some time.

PoS-2 suffers from dubious economics

  • It also may not produce any climate benefits, as Russian natural gas production is extraordinarily methane-intensive. Nevertheless, both sides may agree to the deal for political reasons, as an additional Sino-Russian natural gas tie-up would threaten Western strategic and commercial interests.
  • The first Power of Siberia (PoS-1) pipeline, brokered in 2014, was generally reported to total $400 billion for 30 years. The pipeline enhanced Chinese supply assurance because it does not draw from gas fields that are connected to Europe. China is the pipeline’s sole foreign customer.

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