Wang Yi, the head of Chinese diplomacy, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Wednesday: Putin welcomed Wang very warmly and with great honors, said that relations between China and Russia are reaching “new frontiers” and that he hopes relations between the two countries are becoming ever closer. Wang’s visit to Moscow is part of a larger diplomatic tour (he was in Europe last week), but has nonetheless been viewed with some concern by the West, who fear that China may decide to intervene on Russia’s behalf in the Ukrainian conflict more decisively than it is doing now.
In this first year of war in Ukraine, China’s position has been very ambiguous: formally allied with Russia (Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have promised an “unlimited” alliance between the two countries) China has never supported the Russian invasion directly and on more than one occasion it limited itself to asking for the start of negotiations and an end to the fighting, without however ever committing itself too much to obtain these objectives. At the same time, China has been instrumental in helping Russia circumvent Western sanctions.
This ambiguity has allowed China to manage an international issue as complicated as the war in Ukraine without too many frictions: to the West, Chinese diplomacy spoke of negotiation, dialogue and peace, while to Russia it spoke of alliance and mutual support.
It also happened during Wang’s last diplomatic tour. The head of Chinese diplomacy (who is not the foreign minister: they are two different figures) last week attended the annual Security Conference in Munich, Germany, and in front of an audience composed mainly of Western diplomats and officials he spoke extensively of the need to find diplomatic solutions to the war: “China has always been on the side of peace and dialogue and has always insisted in favor of peace and negotiations,” he said. Wang was so convincing in Munich that some analysts even hoped that China had finally persuaded itself, after a year, to pressure Russia into serious diplomatic dialogue.
But a few days later, in Moscow, Wang decisively changed his message. Before Putin on Wednesday he said that “relations between China and Russia have passed the test of international turbulence and are mature and stable, as strong as Mount Tai”, a famous Chinese sacred mountain. Putin, very satisfied, said that between China and Russia “everything is progressing, developing, we are reaching new frontiers”.
After a year of war, this Chinese ambiguity is becoming increasingly untenable. Russia is asking China for stronger and more direct support to the war effort than her, while the West he’s getting impatient for the increasingly important role China has taken on in helping Russia circumvent sanctions.
The greatest concern of the West was expressed by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who last week (again in Munich, and after an interview with Wang) said that the United States is aware of the fact that China is considering the possibility of sending weapons and ammunition to Russia, to directly support the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
There is currently no evidence that China wants to send weapons to Russia, and indeed so far the Chinese government has always tried to avoid any suspicion in the matter, knowing that it would risk compromising its relations with the West. But if Blinken, on behalf of the US government, has so directly accused China, it is likely that the US has learned that there are at least discussions going on. Blinken probably wanted to act in advance and warn China that there would be serious consequences if he decides to give military support to the Russian invasion.
Pushing Russia to ask for more aid from China could also be the way in which the conflict in Ukraine is evolving, which in recent months has turned into a war of attrition, in which the two armies try to wear each other out other by inflicting the greatest possible number of losses of soldiers and means. To sustain this kind of warfare, Ukraine needs military support from the West, but there are growing indications that Russian military production too is in troubleand that therefore the Putin regime is looking outside for help and supplies.