“We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual.”
There’s not many British quotations that cut through in China, Peppa Pig aside, but various Chinese officials have cited this to me, saying how wise Churchill was – although it was Lord Palmerston who first said it.
But that quotation is especially relevant in the Ukraine war.
Before Russia‘s invasion, presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping met in Beijing to declare a friendship that knew “no limits”.
Turns out, there were some limits. Now we’re finding out what they are – and what they mean for the balance of war in Ukraine, and the new political order that Putin and Xi promised the world.
US officials briefed media that Russia had asked China for military and economic support.
China countered by saying that the US was spreading “malicious information” with “sinister intentions”. Russia denied the claim too.
The US briefing was intended to put China on the spot. Because there is still, two weeks into this war, a fundamental question: which way will China go?
If you listen to the rhetoric, China is firmly in Russia’s camp. Its foreign ministry and main news channel have amplified unsubstantiated claims about US-run biolabs in Ukraine, along with the ridiculous suggestion that animals have been bred and trained to spread infectious diseases.
Those blowhard statements should disqualify most countries from a serious role in the crisis.
And indeed China, despite its global leadership ambitions, has been passive throughout. It has said it “supports” international efforts at a resolution. It does not champion them itself, or come up with any good ideas.
But China is too important to ignore, even as it sits stoutly on the fence.
If it chooses to supply Russia with armaments or logistics, we will have a proxy war, fought on cold ground between Ukraine and Russia, with the West and China backing either side. That is a nightmarish scenario.
So we come back to the question of allies and enemies, but most of all, of interests.
China has made it clear that it is not an ally of Russia. It is a “strategic partner”.
In other developments
The strategic partner in Beijing would have been happy with a lightning war. That is not what has happened.
Instead, a previously supine EU, in terms of its preference for making money from China over its values, has been re-invigorated. The EU is China’s largest trading partner and it would not forget Chinese intervention.
And the West’s sanctions have bite, even in Beijing. China may spot an opportunity to buy discounted Russian energy and assets. But the threat of secondary sanctions, from the West, has already stopped it supplying aircraft parts to Russia.
China needs them too. It lacks a domestic aviation industry, despite its best efforts. It cannot risk being cut off from Western technology. Those concerns extend beyond planes.
China may also look around at the allies it has gathered – Russia, North Korea, Iran, Syria – and conclude they are not the best of the bunch. Especially as it loses previously friendly countries in the EU.
That all should be China’s interest.
It is not necessarily Xi Jinping’s.
He and Putin hold the same world view, especially about the role of the US in world affairs, and the break up of the Soviet Union – tragic, as they see it.
They share a sympathy that I imagine only despots can. They have not only both made it to the top of the their respective backstabbing, paranoid and dangerous systems – a formidable achievement in itself; they have reshaped those systems in their own image.
China will not disavow its partnership with Russia. It cannot, when its Chairman Xi has made such a good friend, and so publicly, with Putin.
But if China really backs Russia, by sending it weapons supplies instead of worthless press conference rhetoric, Xi will have made his choice.
A temporary ally over perpetual interests.
It would be a bad one for China and for the world.