Is China distancing itself from Russia? Don’t be so quick


China Expresses Strong Criticism of Russia, but Relationship Remains Intact

China’s recent criticism of Russia over an incident involving Chinese citizens being denied entry into Russia at a border checkpoint has raised eyebrows. However, experts claim that there is no indication of a broader shift in China’s view of Russia’s actions in Ukraine. Since Russia’s invasion, China has attempted to distance itself from Moscow on certain issues, even as President Xi Jinping continues to support Putin’s reasons for going to war.

The criticism from China came after videos circulated on Chinese social media platforms showing Russian border officials searching through suitcases belonging to Chinese travelers. The Chinese Embassy in Moscow condemned Russia’s “brutal and excessive law-enforcement activities,” stating that they violated the rights of Chinese citizens.

While the language used by China was unusually strong, it does not suggest a shift in Beijing’s stance towards Russia. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reiterated that the two nations are “good partners” during a phone call with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. China also emphasized its independent stance on Ukraine. Experts argue that the incident highlights the complex nature of China and Russia’s relationship, which is more nuanced than many in the West understand.

Henry Wang Huiyao, founder of the Center for China and Globalization research group, believes that China needs to maintain good relations with Russia, but that does not mean they support everything Russia does. President Xi Jinping has positioned China as a neutral broker on Ukraine, proposing a 12-point blueprint for peace that includes calls for respecting sovereignty and halting hostilities. While this roadmap has been criticized by the US and its allies, it has gained Xi credibility and allowed China to participate in Ukraine talks hosted by Saudi Arabia.

However, China does have reasons to be annoyed with Russia. Putin’s decision to end a deal allowing grain exports through the Black Sea has caused food supply problems, impacting China as well. Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, believes that the main issue for China is the unpredictability of the long-term nature of the conflict. The war in Ukraine destabilizes the world, diverting focus from China’s growing influence.

Despite these frustrations, China and Russia continue to deepen their military cooperation. They recently conducted their seventh bilateral military exercise of the year, marking the highest number of joint military exercises between the countries in the past two decades. Theresa Fallon, director of the Brussels-based Centre for Russia Europe Asia Studies, believes that Moscow and Beijing are trying to focus on areas where their interests align.

President Xi is not afraid to criticize Russia, especially if its actions threaten his domestic standing or make him appear weak. The recent incident at the border checkpoint sparked outrage among Chinese social media users, with some questioning the travelers’ actions and cautioning against deep diplomatic relations with Moscow. However, experts believe that the incident will not harm the overall relationship between Russia and China.

Ultimately, the relationship with Russia is too important for China to sever ties with Putin. However, President Xi must also demonstrate to the Chinese people that he will stand up for their interests. Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, believes that China’s strongly worded statement was aimed at its domestic online audience rather than the Russian authorities. It serves as a message that China will protect the rights of its citizens, whether they are violated by enemies like the West or friends like Russia.

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