Beijing chafing at Moscow’s demands for support, Chinese officials say

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Russian officials have raised increasingly frustrated demands for more support in talks with Beijing in recent weeks, calling on China to respect its affirmation of a “limitless” partnership made weeks before the start of the war in China. Ukraine. But China’s leaders want to extend aid to Russia without breaching Western sanctions and have set limits on what they will do, Chinese and US officials say.

Moscow has at least twice pressed Beijing to offer new forms of economic support – exchanges that a Chinese official described as “tense”. Officials familiar with the talks spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject.

They declined to share details of Russia’s demands, but an official said it included maintaining ‘trade commitments’ that predated the February 24 invasion of Ukraine, and now-sanctioned financial and technology support by the United States and other countries.

“China has clearly expressed its position on the situation in Ukraine and on the illegal sanctions against Russia,” a person with direct knowledge of the discussions told Beijing. “We understand [Moscow’s] hard situation. But we cannot ignore our own situation in this dialogue. China will always act in the best interests of the Chinese people. »

China is at an impasse as it seeks to help its most important strategic partner, which sparked a war that Beijing had not anticipated would now enter its fourth month, Chinese and US officials said. They said President Xi Jinping had instructed his closest advisers to find ways to help Russia financially, but without violating sanctions.

“It’s been difficult,” said a senior US official. “And that is insufficient from the Russian point of view.”

The US official said China had tried to find “other opportunities” diplomatically and through joint military exercises to bolster Russia. Last week, Russia and China flew strategic bombers over the Sea of ​​Japan and the East China Sea while President Biden was in Tokyo, concluding his maiden trip to Asia. It was their first joint military exercise since the invasion of Ukraine and a strong signal of the growing strategic partnership between Moscow and Beijing.

Russia and China conduct first joint military exercise since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine

“What China is trying to do is be with Russia, publicly signal neutrality and not be financially compromised,” the US official said. “Many of these goals are contradictory. It is difficult to fill them at the same time.

The Russian Embassy in Washington did not respond to requests for comment.

China called for an end to the war but refused to join a global consortium of countries to impose sanctions on Moscow, instead blaming the conflict on the United States and NATO’s expansion in Europe .

“For a long time, China and Russia have maintained normal cooperation in the fields of economy, trade and energy. The problem is not who will help Russia circumvent the sanctions, but that the normal economic and trade exchanges between Russia and China have been unnecessarily damaged,” said Liu Pengyu, spokesperson for the Embassy of China. China in Washington.

Liu added that the sanctions resulted in a “lose-lose” situation for all parties and worsened the “already difficult global economy”.

Beijing’s public support for Russia has not wavered. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi reaffirmed his commitment to Moscow on Wednesday during a virtual meeting also attended by his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. Wang said China was willing to work with Russia to promote “true democracy”, alluding to a Chinese foreign policy goal of countering what he described as US hegemony in world politics.

Russia did not request “arms and ammunition” to support its war, Chinese officials said, but declined to say whether Russia had requested other items that could be used in military operations, including technology and supplies.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday that the United States has seen no “systematic effort” from China to help Russia evade sanctions, nor any significant military support from China to Russia. .

Biden warns China’s Xi not to help Russia over Ukraine

Blinken, speaking at a Council on Foreign Relations event commemorating the centenary of Foreign Affairs magazine, noted a “remarkable exodus of businesses from Russia” following the invasion – 7,800 businesses, Blinken said. , who “didn’t want their reputations to be in jeopardy doing business in Russia.

The sanctions themselves did not lead to the exodus, Blinken said. “These are really companies that decided for themselves that they were not going to act as if nothing had happened in a country that was committing this kind of aggression. This is something that I think China must also take into account when considering its relationship with Russia.

China has been reluctant to help Russia evade sanctions, fearing the United States and its allies could cut China off from critical technologies, including semiconductors and aerospace equipment, as well as target its financial system, it said. a Beijing official. Shipments of high-end Chinese technology to Russia – including smartphones, laptops and telecommunications equipment – have plummeted since the start of the war.

Nevertheless, the Chinese maintain that the US and Western sanctions are illegal and that China will continue to do business with Russia. “The Chinese side is willing to fulfill its commitments to the Russian side, and does so when the appropriate conditions are met,” a person familiar with the talks said in Beijing.

Asked about US warnings that China would face consequences if it helped Russia, the person said: “The real reason is to sow discord between the Chinese side and the Russian side… it won’t happen. They will not succeed in undermining Sino-Russian relations.

The Chinese official, however, noted that the war in Ukraine had lasted much longer than expected, and Beijing made it clear to Moscow that ending the conflict would give China more leeway to oppose sanctions and develop trade ties there. the interior of Russia in the wake. the exodus of foreign companies.

Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said: “I think the hope of the United States and Europe is that China will be forced to choose [between siding with Russia or with the West] and that he will make the right choice. But China has competing interests and it will be nearly impossible to compel it to put its longstanding support for territorial integrity and sovereignty above its relationship with Russia.

Yun Sun, co-director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center, said: “The point of standing with Russia is that they want Russia to work with them in a strategic alignment against the United States”. But by respecting Western sanctions, after all the public support it has given Russia, Beijing runs the risk of undermining its relationship with Moscow.

A second Chinese official said talks among senior officials have focused on accelerating Russian businesses into China to cement closer ties while minimizing risk to Beijing. And open source documents show that Russia-related projects in China are moving forward.

Chinese national bidding documents show that funding for new construction on the strategically important Russia-China Eastern Route gas pipeline has continued since the start of the war, with new purchases of materials and machinery for in the southern part of the project. It is expected to supply 18.9 billion cubic meters of Russian gas to China’s economically vibrant Yangtze River Delta region by 2025.

In April, China’s Atomic Energy Institute also purchased new services and equipment from Russian nuclear engineering firm OKBM Afrikantov for Russian-built China. Experimental Fast Reactor (CEFR) nuclear project near Beijing, documents show. During the same period, it purchased new supplies and services from Russia’s atomic energy company Rosatom for the Tianwan Nuclear Power Plant, a landmark Sino-Russian project under construction in China’s Jiangsu province.

Municipal and provincial governments have also been tasked by Beijing with launching projects to expand trade and financial ties with Russia, according to officials in Beijing and national bidding documents filed in China.

“Based on the comparative advantages of location and resources, we will analyze the enabling factors and obstacles for regional cooperation between Dalian and the Russian Far East…in order to promote high-quality economic development,” said a May 19 document outlining funding for the search for investment opportunities in Russia for the Dalian industrial and port hub in northeast China, located close to the Russian border.

Chinese officials also said senior leaders had called for new investment and trade with Belarus, which has been targeted with financial and defense sanctions linked to its supporting role in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. .

Tender documents and contracts issued in April and May show Chinese companies continued to ship to the China-Belarus Industrial Park, a logistics hub outside Minsk, Belarus, which was created as part of a strategic agreement between the two countries. More than half of the companies in the park are Chinese-funded, according to data published in Chinese state media in May.

Other tender documents released on May 20 outline plans by a subsidiary of state-owned tech giant China Electronics Technology Group (CETC) to launch a $30 million project for a joint Sino-Belarusian research lab. which will study and test electromagnetic pulse (EMP) equipment — a technology with military applications. The project includes an 11,000 square foot research base and a range of EMP equipment.

The CETC and its subsidiaries have already been placed on the US Commerce Department’s Entity List, which limits exports to listed companies, for their cooperation with the Chinese military.

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