Russia, Ukraine and China’s Western Ties

Andy Rothman, Matthews Asia Investment Strategist, and Dr. Bobo Lo, independent analyst and non-resident Fellow with the Lowy Institute, discuss how the Russian invasion of Ukraine may affect China’s relationship with the U.S. and Europe. The comments are based on a webcast discussion from March 3, 2022.

Andy Rothman: There’s been speculation that when Vladimir Putin met Xi Jinping in Beijing for the opening of the Winter Olympics, Putin told Xi that he planned to invade Ukraine. What kind of backing might Russia have received from China before going into the conflict?

Dr. Bobo Lo: I think Putin would have told Xi that Russia planned to take military action but that it was going to be like “shock and awe”—that it would be resolved quickly, that Ukraine was weak and divided, and that the West was talking a big game but wouldn’t put up when it really mattered. And maybe Xi thought that if an invasion was over and done with very quickly, it wouldn’t challenge China’s relationship with Russia or the West. Beijing’s confused response as the conflict has unfolded suggests that it was surprised by the scope and ferocity of Putin’s assault.

If Xi was informed of Russia’s basic intentions why didn’t he advise Putin against the move?

The short answer is it wouldn't have had any effect. There's no point asking for something if you're not going to achieve a result or even any kind of compromise. The longer answer is this—just as Taiwan is a core interest of Beijing, Ukraine is very much a core interest of Moscow. In the same way that Putin is not going to tell Xi how to address the challenge of Taiwan, Xi isn't about to lecture Putin on what to do about Ukraine. It not only wouldn’t have any positive effect but it would actually be counterproductive for their relationship.

How do you think Xi views Putin’s strategy?

So far, this has been the worst possible outcome for Xi in terms of the way the conflict has developed. It is clearly going to be a long-term war and it really puts China on the spot in trying to juggle its priorities. Xi will think Putin has badly misjudged the situation—completely underestimated the degree of Ukrainian resistance, the unity of the West and the power of sanctions.