When Russian troops poured into Ukraine over a year ago, many experts foresaw a strategic windfall for China, with the United States distracted again by a war far from Asia. Now, Beijing is increasingly alarmed that the Western bloc backing Ukraine is entrenching itself in China’s neighborhood.
The leaders of the Group of 7 nations last weekend pledged more support for Kyiv and angered Beijing by challenging its claims to the South China Sea, vowing to resist economic coercion, and pressing China on human rights abuses in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong. Days after, Moscow and Beijing are reinforcing their relationship by holding security and trade talks, with Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin of Russia leading a delegation of business tycoons on a visit to China.
The contrast between President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine receiving more arms guarantees from President Biden at the G7 and Mr. Mishustin seeking more economic support for Russia from China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, underscores how the deepening geopolitical divisions have been exacerbated by the war.
“China is ready to double down on its relationship with Russia following the G7 summit because the central theme of that summit comprised not only Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but also China and how the West should deal with it,” said Alexander Korolev, a senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales in Australia, who studies Chinese-Russian relations.
“The summit and Zelensky’s presence at it have marked a more apparent and deeper geopolitical divide between the West on the one hand and China and Russia on the other hand,” he added.
President Biden sought to depict a less fraught atmosphere, predicting that there would be a thaw in relations with Beijing. But to China, the display of unity among the G7 democracies meeting on its doorstep likely plays into Chinese claims that the United States is trying to marshal its allies to provoke a conflict in the region.
As the Communist Party newspaper, Global Times, described it on Monday, the United States is trying to “replicate the ‘Ukraine Crisis’” in the Asia Pacific region. By doing so, the Chinese argument goes, Washington could wage a proxy war against China like it is with Russia, and later justify what would be a nightmare scenario for Beijing: the formation of an Asia-Pacific version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization to contain China’s rise.
The G7 summit was riddled with “uncomfortable optics” for China, said Lyle J. Goldstein, an expert on China at Defense Priorities, a think tank in Washington. Chief among them was the hosting of the event by Japan, a power that China harbors deep-seated historical animosity toward. Chinese state media has lashed out at Tokyo this week, accusing it of doing the “United States’ bidding” and inflating the “China threat” so that it can amend its constitution to build up its military again for the first time since World War II.
Mr. Goldstein said China saw Japan at the G7 as “colluding with the U.S.” to “bring Europe into the Taiwan issue,” a move he likened to “waving a red flag in front of a bull.”
China finds itself in this predicament because its close partner, Russia, defied warnings from the West and invaded Ukraine. Despite the many problems that’s created for China, Beijing has continued to provide economic and diplomatic support for the Kremlin because of a shared desire to weaken U.S. global dominance.
Speaking at a business forum in Shanghai on Tuesday, Mr. Mishustin said Russia would continue fostering relations with China, which remains one of Russia’s only suppliers of technologies like microchips and one of its biggest energy customers.
“We have expanded trade with the world’s rapidly developing economies. These words fully apply to our big friend, China,” Mr. Mishustin said, according to Russian state media, which reported that the two sides discussed expanding cooperation in transportation, agriculture and energy.
Mr. Korolev, the University of New South Wales expert, said the war and Western sanctions have accelerated Russia’s economic reorientation toward Asia. That policy shift, which started more than a decade ago, has been met with concerns in Russia about developing an overreliance on China.
“There are no more reservations,” Mr. Korolev said. “All the political barriers that existed before have now been removed, and Russia is no longer concerned about relying, or even depending, on China for its economic well-being.”
The two countries are also expanding security ties. Chen Wenqing, the head of the Chinese Communist Party’s political and legal affairs committee — which oversees law-and-order issues — embarked on an eight-day visit to Russia on Sunday and held talks with the head of Russia’s Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, in Moscow.
At a news conference in Beijing on Tuesday, a foreign ministry spokeswoman, Mao Ning, said Sino-Russian “cooperation has strong resilience and large potential” that would not be “disturbed or threatened by any third party,” an apparent reference to the United States.
The tightening bond between the two powers has undercut China’s bid to cast itself as a credible mediator in the war in Ukraine. Last week, China dispatched a special peace envoy to visit European capitals such as Kyiv, Warsaw, Brussels and Moscow. The envoy, Li Hui, has so far failed to achieve a breakthrough as Ukraine has insisted on the full withdrawal of Russian forces from occupied territory. The Kremlin has rejected those terms, and it’s unclear if China would be willing to pressure Russia to relent given Beijing’s desire to preserve good relations with Moscow.
Mr. Li has also been trailed by questions about his neutrality because of his perceived closeness to the Kremlin after serving as a former ambassador to Russia.
“Although this experience in itself does not necessarily mean Li will be biased toward Russia in negotiations, it certainly does not dispel the impression that China wants to make sure its relationship with Russia stays intact following the negotiations,” said Cheng Chen, an expert in Chinese politics at the University at Albany-SUNY.
Mr. Li is scheduled to visit Russia on Friday, according to Russian state media.
While the Chinese government has professed to be neutral over the war, at home, its overarching political narrative about the conflict is laden with sympathy for Russia and a widespread belief that China is the next target if Mr. Putin falls in defeat.
Mr. Goldstein, the expert at Defense Priorities, said that a senior Chinese expert on Russia told him during a talk in Beijing last week that from Beijing’s perspective, “if Russia loses, then the pressure on China will only multiply and become much more severe.”
In many studies by Chinese government and military analysts, Ukraine is depicted as not just the recipient of crucial Western military and intelligence support, but a pawn that the United States has lured into its broader strategy to critically weaken Russia, and ultimately China.
“If the United States and NATO get the last laugh in their war of confrontation with Russia, then they will have finally formed a multilateral military power system of U.S.-Japan-Europe,” Liu Jiangyong, a prominent expert on China’s relations with Japan and other Asian countries at Tsinghua University in Beijing, wrote in a recent study. “Even if China becomes the world’s number one economic power, its international security environment may continue to worsen.”
Vivian Wang and Olivia Wang contributed reporting.