Beijing: China is the only friend that might help Russia blunt the impact of economic sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine, but President Xi Jinping’s government is giving no sign it might be willing to risk its own access to US and European markets by doing too much.
Even if Beijing wanted to, its ability to support President Vladimir Putin by importing more Russian gas and other goods is limited.
Relations with Moscow have warmed since Xi took power in 2012, motivated by shared resentment of Washington, but their interests can conflict. While their militaries hold joint exercises, Putin is uneasy about the growing Chinese economic presence in Central Asia and Russia’s Far East.
China doesn’t want to get so involved that it ends up suffering as a result of its support for Russia, said Mark Williams, chief Asia economist for Capital Economics.
Chinese trade with Russia rose to 146.9 billion last year, but that is less than one-tenth of China’s total 1.6 trillion in trade with the United States and European Union.
China, the world’s second-largest economy, is the only major government not to have condemned the invasion.
The degree of Chinese support Russia receives is likely to prove a crucial factor in how well it can weather the long-term consequences, wrote Kevin Rudd, a former Australian prime minister and president of the Asia Society, on the Asia Society website.
China’s multibillion-dollar purchases of Russian gas for its energy-hungry economy have been a lifeline for Putin following trade and financial sanctions imposed in 2014 over his seizure of Crimea from Ukraine.
Putin’s government has spent the past decade trying to expand exports to the Far East to reduce reliance on European markets. Moscow and Beijing both are trying to de-dollarise, or use the US currency less in trade, to reduce their exposure to the American financial system and official pressure.
China bought one-sixth of Russia’s total exports last year and two-thirds of that was oil and gas, according to Rajiv Biswas, chief Asia-Pacific economist for IHS Markit.
Beijing has shown its self-interest by using pressure on Moscow from the 2014 sanctions as leverage to negotiate lower gas prices in an earlier contract.
A foreign ministry spokesman didn’t answer directly when asked Friday whether China might buy more Russian oil. But he criticised illegal unilateral sanctions and said Beijing and Moscow carry on normal trade cooperation.
Also this week, China announced it would allow imports of wheat from all parts of Russia for the first time. That cannot replace all lost gas revenue if Europe stops buying but could help to buoy incomes of Russian farmers.
Still, that announcement came with a warning that looms as a potential obstacle: Shipments must be kept free of a fungus that led China earlier to avoid Russian wheat.
In a phone call Friday with Putin, Xi said China supports Russia and Ukraine resolving this problem through dialogue, state TV reported. AP