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Ukraine Series: China’s Evolving Relationship with Russia

March 29, 2022
Tai Ming Cheung

Talking Policy Podcast

In the latest from Talking Policy’s series on Ukraine, guest host James Lee, an IGCC postdoctoral fellow and Taiwan expert, talks with IGCC director and UC San Diego professor Tai Ming Cheung about how Russia’s invasion of and campaign in Ukraine may impact Chinese military strategy; the implications of the war for Chinese-Russian relations; and how he thinks the academic and policy worlds need to shift amidst the latest global upheaval. This interview was recorded on March 14, 2022.

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The invasion of Ukraine has put a spotlight on Russia’s relationship with China—the world’s other authoritarian great power. How much did China know in advance about Putin’s plan to invade Ukraine?

That’s a great question, and I’m sure lots of people want to know the answer. There’s all sorts of speculation that when Putin visited Beijing for the Winter Olympics, he could have informed Xi Jinping [about the invasion], or that, because China and Russia have a very close relationship in the military sphere, that information could have been shared. But we don’t know.

What we do know is that China was, to some extent, taken by surprise. Chinese authorities had a difficult few days at the beginning to work out its position. This suggests that the Chinese may have been told some things, but may not have been given full insight into what was taking place by the Russians.

If the Chinese were surprised by what happened, do you think it’s likely that that would introduce some element of distrust in Russia-China relations?

It’s possible. But trust has not been well-established in the China-Russia relationship. While the Chinese and the Russians have developed a pretty good relationship, there’s significant distrust in many areas of that relationship. In many ways, Beijing and Moscow operate on the classic Ronald Reagan formula: trust but verify. It’s a conditional relationship, where they have lots of things in common—like sharing a deep disdain and hostility towards the U.S., deep nationalist roots on both sides—but at the same time, both countries have had many, many decades, if not centuries, of hostility towards each other, even in the recent past. Since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the two countries have spent as much time at each other’s throats as they have been comrades in arms. When you have this sort of very mixed history, trust is often in short supply.

How much disagreement is there between Russia and China about what their relative status should be?

For the first 50 years after the founding of the People’s Republic, the Soviet Union was the senior partner and the country that provided enormous amounts of economic, industrial, and military assistance to China. There was a clear hierarchy in the relationship; the Soviet Union was very much the big brother, and China was a junior partner.

After the Sino-Soviet split, there were long decades of hostility. They got back together at the end of the 1980s / the beginning of the 1990s. The Soviet Union still acted like the senior partner, especially in the military and security realm. And even after the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russians continued to see themselves as the more senior partner. But on the economic side, China was more prosperous, and trade was much more in China’s favor. So you had this bifurcated relationship where China was wealthier and more powerful on the economic side, while on the military side, the Russians had a lot more than what the Chinese offered.

In the last decade or two, especially when Xi Jinping came to power, there’s been a recognition that it’s a more balanced relationship, where both occupy sort some sort of equivalence or balance in that relationship.

How much does China’s nuclear weapons program and its size relative to Russia play a role in the disagreements or relative status?

I don’t think it plays that much. The Russian nuclear arsenal is much, much bigger than the Chinese, but that’s a function of nuclear competition with the U.S. The Chinese nuclear weapons program has been relatively minimalist. The Russians and the Chinese have had a pretty engaged dialogue and nuclear weapons is not one of the key aspects of their military relationship. They talk to each other to mitigate any issues and tensions, but I don’t think the Russians see nuclear war with China as a likelihood or vice versa on the Chinese side.

It’s the conventional side that is the key part of how the two sides see each other from a military balance perspective. In terms of strategic deterrence capabilities, for example, hypersonic capabilities in space, there’s been a lot of interest on both sides to cooperate and develop joint programs. And that’s because a lot of these strategic deterrence capabilities that are non-nuclear are in both of the two countries interests to develop joint jointly because they have a common foe which is the U.S.

Just before Russia invaded Ukraine, Xi met with Putin during the Beijing Olympics, and they issued a joint statement saying that the friendship between Russia and China had “no limits,” and that there were “no forbidden areas of cooperation.” What did they mean by this? And is there a disconnect between the politics and the rhetoric of China-Russia relations?

There’s a lot of flowery rhetoric. The joint statement also mentioned that they thought that their relationship exceeds the political and strategic alliances they had back in the 1950s, which is an exaggeration. But the intent was to signal to the U.S. and the West that the Chinese and the Russians might engage and cooperate in some of the strategic deterrence capabilities areas that the two countries have had danced around.

In just the last few days, China has been assisting Russia’s disinformation campaign by spreading false claims that the United States was conducting research on biological weapons in Ukraine. At the same time, Chinese officials have been gradually using stronger language to describe the invasion of Ukraine with Xi Jinping recently calling it a war rather than a “special military operation.” How should we make sense of this?

On the Chinese side, there are different voices. China would like to demonstrate that its vast bureaucracy is unified, but it’s much harder to implement in reality. There are a lot of competing interests in Chinese state society when it comes to Russia. You have the military national security coalition that tends to side much more closely with the Russians and to be much more on board in terms of disinformation and propaganda campaigns. Then you have other elements, like the economic operators, who are much more closely aligned in terms of interests with the West. It’s not surprising that you get major debates and nuances from the Chinese authorities, even though it’s a very top down, disciplined system.

I think also that the Chinese are very pragmatic. They’re not dogmatic in their approach towards Russia. They’re much more willing to adjust their positions tactically. From an operational perspective, they can play two different sides at the same time.

It was recently reported that Russia had asked China for military aid. Is China likely to provide aid or other forms of military assistance?

That’s interesting news reporting. I don’t know if that’s actually happened. But here’s some useful context. Historically, military aid and weapons transfers between Russia and China have been one way: from the Soviet Union/Russia, to China. Especially in the last couple of decades, the Chinese have bought tens of billions of dollars’ worth of Russian military equipment. The Russians have had very little interest in what the Chinese military industrial complex has had to offer. Although in the last few years, there’s been some limited and burgeoning interest, as the Chinese begin to develop advanced technologies. But by and large, the Russian military has not looked to China for military assistance.

But given the enormous resources they are investing in their invasion of Ukraine, Russia will no doubt be keen to get whatever military assistance they can get. There’s one interesting anecdote that sheds light on how the Chinese may be thinking if there is this type of Russian request. Back in 1989, China found themselves in a similar position as Russia today. There was the June 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, where the Chinese used force against their citizens, and became an international pariah with sanctions from across the international system. The Chinese military, worried about their access to military capabilities, reached out to the Soviet Union and said: we want to reestablish a relationship with the goal of getting military assistance. And the Soviets said yes. Within the next couple of years, this provided the foundations of this very close Chinese-Russian military relationship.

The Chinese put a lot of stock in these types of gestures. When they get assistance and help from other countries, they might be more inclined to reciprocate. Russia today is in an even more dire circumstance than China in 1989. The Chinese would no doubt be reminded by Moscow that Moscow said yes when the Chinese were in a difficult spot. It’s one important reason why the Chinese will be willing, whether it’s right now or after a few months, to say yes to Russian outreach for military assistance.

Does that also apply to economic sanctions? Is China going to help Russia to cushion the effect of international sanctions?

The military component of the relationship is in many ways compartmentalized, or in a very different lane from the economic and energy side. The military side tends to be much more nontransparent. They can keep a lot of what’s going on away from the international community—they can hide a lot of what is taking place. The Chinese arrangement on the economic side is very different, because the Chinese are much more integrated with the West, and they do much less trade and investment with Russia. So they have a fundamentally different set of interests to consider itself. I think the Chinese will be wary of circumventing or ignoring the international sanctions. The Chinese will find ways to try to develop alternative financial mechanisms to do trade in the international system. But I think the Chinese will be very, very cautious in allowing economic relations to develop with Russia that may impede their own economic circumstances.

Turning to Taiwan, has Russia’s invasion of Ukraine affected Beijing’s decision making or Beijing’s calculus regarding the use of force against Taiwan?

We’ll have to wait and see for concrete evidence, but it’s clear that it would have a profound impact. A lot of people have asked: because the U.S. and the West are distracted over Russia, does this provide an ideal opportunity to invade and take over Taiwan? But that makes no sense.

First of all, the People’s Liberation Army is still woefully unprepared to undertake a full-scale military invasion into Taiwan and be confident of success. It will be years before they can have any sort of a confidence that they will be able to win a war against Taiwan. Invading Taiwan is so much more difficult than what the Russians are doing in the Ukraine. The Russia-Ukraine war has been a land invasion from Belarus and from the east of the country. There’s a significant amphibious portion in the south, but much of the focus has been on the use of Russian ground forces in Ukraine. And it’s not gone very well. In the Taiwan context, for China to go across Taiwan requires an amphibious invasion. It requires a significant number of joint operations from the Air Force, the Navy, and the ground forces on the Chinese side. And the Chinese have had very, very little experience in doing that.

I think the campaign in Ukraine will have set back whatever the Chinese military plans are to invade or not invade Taiwan by at least five years, if not longer. And we still don’t know what the end result of what’s happening in Ukraine will be. If it continues to be a stalemate, if the Russians are not able to gain their military goals, then this may even push back even longer what the Chinese military plan is when it comes to Taiwan.

And it should be pointed out that Xi Jinping is much more risk averse when it comes to the use of military force than Vladimir Putin. Putin has used military force on a number of occasions—in Chechnya at the end of the 1990s, and in Georgia in 2007, and Crimea in 2014. Xi Jinping hasn’t been willing to use military force directly. He’s used other elements of the national security apparatus—in Xinjiang, in Hong Kong, in the South China Sea—but he hasn’t put himself in a position where he uses military force for incursions or invasions. He’s much more pragmatic, and much more risk cautious when it comes to the use of force.

What aspects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is Beijing likely to be following most closely? What are the lessons of Ukraine for Beijing, strategic or tactical or operational level?

From a military perspective, all the reporting seems to suggest that the main success that the Russians have had in capturing Ukrainian territory has been in the south. The Chinese will pay attention to that. The Chinese will also look at the use of ground forces, although it’s less relevant. If you look at how the Chinese military have been modernizing and reforming over the last decade or so, especially the high command system since the mid-2010s, a lot of this has been based on the Russian model. For example, in 2016, the Chinese established a system of theater commands to replace military regions. An important reason was the lessons that the Chinese learned from the Russians, especially from the Georgia campaign.  The Chinese command-and-control apparatus, especially at the operational level, has also been called into question because of the Russian failures.

Another lesson that the Chinese will pay particular attention to is that the invasion of Ukraine has taken place in different domains. The military domain is the most brutal and bloody part of it. But tied in with that is economic warfare. The Chinese will have seen that warfare in the 21st century is not just about the military. It’s much more comprehensive. You have to factor in the economic and financial and trade dimensions. As the Chinese think about building up their military capability, they’re also having to think about great power competition with the U.S. They are emphasizing the importance of building up resilience in their economic security to ensure that their economy can deal with the kinds of economic sanctions that the West has thrown at the Russians, and done so at a speed and an extent that’s taken almost everyone by surprise.

Many analysts have been surprised at how much difficulty Russia has faced in gaining air superiority in Ukraine. Would China face similar difficulties in a conflict over Taiwan?

I think the Chinese will face even more difficulties than the Ukrainians. When you compare, for example, the Ukrainian and the Taiwanese air forces, the Taiwanese air force is significantly bigger and significantly more advanced than the Ukrainian air force. The Ukrainian air force is a good air force, but it’s been run down because of a lot of its capabilities historically came from Russia and the Soviet Union itself.

One of the lessons that the Taiwanese will have taken—and they’ve known this for quite a while—is the importance of investing heavily in their air defenses. In the last couple of years, the Taiwanese have pursued a major modernization program, upgrading and buying new F-16 fighter aircraft from the U.S. The Taiwanese have invested heavily in Patriot air defense systems and I would not be surprised if we see a major spike in Taiwanese acquisitions of fighter aircraft. Now there is a debate whether the Taiwanese should buy the most advanced fifth generation fighter aircraft from the U.S., the F-35, which hasn’t happened, because the U.S. hasn’t been willing to sell it. But that might change. And the Taiwanese will look to buy significantly more quantities of air defense systems like the patriot and other similar systems.

Russian armed forces have had much more combat experience compared to the PLA. And yet the Russian armed forces have conspicuously underperformed in Ukraine. Does that mean that combat experience is less important than we might intuitively think, or does it mean that the PLA is likely to be even less effective as a fighting force compared to the Russian military?

Combat experience is very important. The Russian military have waged a number of military campaigns against much weaker forces. The Russians haven’t had an adversary like the Ukrainians. Their military experiences, while significant, didn’t sufficiently prepare them for a major adversary, especially at a state-to-state level, like Ukraine. But it still was useful.

The Chinese, by contrast, have not fought a major military campaign since its border war against Vietnam in 1979. And even then, it did very badly. If you look at the Chinese military leadership today, as far as I can tell, of the top 100 generals, there was one general who was a junior officer in the 1979 war. So, by and large, the Chinese military leadership has no combat experience at all.

Combat experience is an important experience to have. You can train, you can exercise, but it never prepares you for what war is. I think the Chinese will reflect on this and say: we really need to develop our military training and exercise capabilities so that it’s much more realistic.

As an experienced analyst of security issues and a director of a think tank focused on specifically how to mitigate and prevent large-scale conflict, what has it been like for you personally to watch this unfold, and what worries you most?

It’s been very depressing, of course, that in the 21st century, many of the experiences, the mechanisms, the international frameworks to prevent large-scale state-on-state war haven’t really done anything to prevent Russia from going into Ukraine. The research and the work that’s been done to understand the nature of international security over the last couple of decades is now outdated almost overnight. We have to think very differently going forward, both in terms of policy and as academics. We need new out-of-the-box thinking. When we talk about war and state-to-state conflict, it’s no longer in just the military domain. It’s much more comprehensive. We will have to do a lot more work to understand what the new dynamics of the global order post-2022 are going to be.

Tai, thank you very much for sharing your insights with us.

Thank you, James, for all these questions.

The music featured in the IGCC podcast is courtesy of Gato Loco de Bajo.

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