Beijing’s man in DC talks down China-Russia ties

Foreign Affairs

In this week’s China-Russia update: China’s ambassador to the U.S. downplayed Beijing’s relationship with Moscow, and Chinese imports of Russian crude oil are down.

Ambassador Qin Gang — a screenshot from the Aspen Security Forum livestream on July 20, 2022.

Chinese Ambassador to the United States Qín Gāng 秦刚 said the “China-Russia relationship is not an alliance” at a “fireside chat” at the Aspen Security Forum. He declined to call Putin’s war on Ukraine an invasion, but he soft-pedaled the February “no limits” declaration agreed to between the Russian and Chinese heads of state and said there is a “misunderstanding of China-Russia relations.”

What to make of Qin Gang’s comments? On the one hand, it’s true that the China-Russia relationship is certainly not an alliance at this stage: Beijing has backed Moscow rhetorically throughout the conflict but has seemingly done very little to substantively assist the Kremlin. On the other hand, Beijing’s “pro-Russia neutrality” has been a constant since even before the invasion.

It’s worth noting that Chinese ambassadors have been a relatively poor barometer of Beijing’s actual policies throughout the crisis and often have said whatever they think their audiences want to hear. In March, Chinese Ambassador to Russia Zhāng Hànhuī 张汉晖 told Chinese business leaders to “fill the void” left by Western sanctions on Russia; he also claimed to Russian audiences in mid-June that China stood ready to supply aircraft components to Russian airlines. Zhang’s statements appear to have contradicted the substance of Chinese policy: Beijing has overwhelmingly complied with Western sanctions, to date, while Chinese firms do not appear to be supplying aircraft parts to their Russian counterparts. Qin, like his colleague in Russia, appears to be framing Chinese policy in ways that are designed to be palatable to his hosts’ sensitivities.

Russian crude exports to China reportedly drop

Data from the Chinese General Administration of Customs showed that crude imports from Russia fell to about 1.77 million barrels per day (MMBPD) in June, down from 2 MMBPD in the prior month. Analysts were largely surprised by the decline.

While Beijing has an incentive to underreport Russian crude imports, an independent tanker tracking estimate by Bloomberg shows that Russian seaborne exports are indeed down since mid-June. Moreover, there is very credible reporting that Russian crude is increasingly being consumed by refineries in the Russian domestic market (and turned into diesel for Russian tanks and trucks).

Chinese demand for Russian crude will become much more important in the fall and winter as the EU moves to phase out most Russian hydrocarbon imports by the end of the year. It’s also worth noting that Russia suffers from a lack of oil storage capacity, meaning it must either consume or export production.