As Russia unleashes war on one neighbour, its ties to another are also in the spotlight.
Russia has few friends left on the world stage, but in recent years it’s been drawing closer to China – even running joint military drills on occasion.
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began last month, China has refused to condemn Russia and continued to trade with it as other nations impose sanctions. And just weeks before the invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping sealed a “new unbreakable friendship” with a historic joint statement against NATO expansion.
It’s been reported that Beijing asked the Kremlin to hold off on the invasion until after the Winter Olympics. And, as we’ve reported this morning, US officials quoted by media outlets say Russia has asked China for military aid.
Former Australian diplomat to Moscow Bobo Lo tells The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald that the China-Russia relationship is important for both nations (while China’s rise has now eclipsed Russia as a superpower, the Chinese “know what a disruptive neighbor Russia can be”).
But Dr Lo also says that “Xi and Putin are not, as many people imagine, in close cahoots”.
In fact, Dr Lo thinks “Russia is proving to be a hugely embarrassing friend for China right now”. The superpower is torn between backing its ally and distancing itself from an attack on another nation’s sovereignty.
Many experts have compared Russia’s focus on Ukraine to China’s efforts to reclaim Taiwan. Both have served as testing grounds for attacks – and flashpoints for conflict with the West.
But Dr Lo says Russia’s decision to go all-in on Ukraine does not mean China is moments away from launching an assault on Taiwan. Though he says the unprecedented Western response will most likely give China pause there.
“What the Chinese were expecting, like the Europeans, I think, was a quick [Russian] victory. Instead, the longer this conflict goes on, the worse the humanitarian crisis becomes, then the Chinese will have to take a good hard look at themselves and ask, ‘Do we really want to be associated with it?'”
You can read more of Dr Lo’s analysis and what experts see as Putin’s likely endgame in Ukraine in my explainer with Chris Zappone here.