On the one hand, the Chinese are happy to issue vague pro-Kremlin statements, slamming NATO and Washington, while grumbling about Western aggression and the dangers of new Cold War faultlines. But the fundamental geopolitical dynamics underlying Putin’s invasion of Ukraine are anathema to sovereignty-obsessed Beijing. The idea that a minority area or ethnic group could simply claim independence and be recognized by a sympathetic nuclear superpower is China’s nightmare, given that it is perennially worried about dissent in regions such as Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong. This is not the way Beijing wants international diplomacy to be conducted.
China also doesn’t want its growing strategic ties with Putin to burn its business relations with rich Western economies that have proved unexpectedly unanimous in their opposition to Putin’s campaign in Ukraine. Putin may have been a guest of honor at the Winter Olympics in Beijing, but he’s now something of a headache.
In the run-up to Putin’s bombshell recognition of the separatist Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics on Monday night, China and Russia had certainly being building bridges. On February 4, Putin reached a joint statement on Sino-Russian strategy in international relations with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, during his visit to the largely boycotted Winter Olympics.