In the year since Russia invaded Ukraine, U.S.-China relations have continued to deteriorate; one factor is Beijing’s continued support of Moscow’s position and rhetoric. What does Beijing gain from its tacit backing of Russia? How successful have the U.S.-led sanctions been at stemming Russia’s war effort? As China reopens its economy and looks to rebuild its international business and diplomatic relationships after three years of Covid lockdowns, how does its relationship with Russia affect China’s strategic, economic, and diplomatic goals?
Yun Sun discusses the dynamics among China, Russia, and the United States in an interview conducted on February 17, 2023.
JESSICA BISSETT: My name is Jessica Bissett and I’m the director of leadership programs at the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations. Last year, we spoke twice with Sun Yun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center, for our interview series Eyes on Ukraine: Strategic Implications for China, Russia and the United States, once before Russia’s February 24th invasion of Ukraine, and then once again on March 7th, a couple of weeks later.
As we approached the one year anniversary of the invasion, Yun has agreed to join us for a third installment in the series. Yun, as always, thank you so much for taking the time to help us better understand what has transpired over the past 12 months and what the future may hold. We have a lot to cover, so let’s jump right in.
So one year into this deadly conflict, what does the view from China look like? Do you have a sense about the general mood amongst the Chinese public? And does the public sentiment track with the official line? Has China’s narrative about the war evolved at all?
YUN SUN: Thank you for having me and thank you for the great questions. I think for China one year into this this war between Russia and Ukraine, China more than ever wants this war to be over. And this desire has been expressed by different levels of the Chinese leadership as well as Chinese officials. And I think that position does reflect where China is.
The question is, what will China have to do to bring the war to an end? It’s always easy to call for peace, a call for the two sides to settle. But unfortunately, that is not a political reality that we’re currently looking at. As Wang Yi is currently in Europe and doing his diplomatic maneuver, I think the key question is what is China willing to do in terms of the solution or in terms of a settlement of the of the war?
In China, I think the official narrative about the war has evolved quite a bit, and I’m sure people can recall about a year ago when the war first broke out, the Chinese were very defensive about Russia. They were almost entirely blaming NATO for its expansion, and for Ukraine for inviting NATO’s expansion, for triggering the Russian response or triggering the Russian invasion of Ukraine. That line we don’t see as much in China today, in China’s official narrative. This reference to NATO or being responsible for the war, I mean, if you ask Chinese officials, they will still go there. But this is not a top position or the top line that they’re trying to strike.
Well, the Chinese general public, I think there is still a sense of illusion that somehow Russia is not going to lose, that somehow Russia is still doing okay with the war. And you see this from the Chinese, for example, the discussions online about how Russia was faking its failure. And in fact, Russia has been planning this big push back and it will be a decisive and swift military victory being repeated among the Chinese netizens, which forms a sharp contrast to how the Russia experts in China view the war, because they see that there is no doubt Russia is losing and Russia is not going to see a chance of achieving the goal it has set out to achieve a year ago.
And in Russia, no matter what happens to the end of this war, Russia is going to end up as weaker power. So, seeing this distinction between the Chinese general public and the Chinese expert community is also very interesting.
BISSET: It is interesting, it’s quite a distinction. Moving to economics and trade, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article, despite international sanctions and export controls, Chinese state-owned defense companies are shipping navigation equipment, jamming technologies, and jet fighter parts to sanctioned Russian government owned defense companies. What do you think is the impact of continuing Chinese shipments to Russia after a year of war? Is this something that was to be expected and will it continue? Do you think these shipments speak to a larger issue of the effectiveness of strength of sanctions against Russia? Help us unpack the China-Russia economic relationship a bit more.
SUN: Well, I think the Wall Street Journal article covers the really interesting aspect that people have been asking [about], what kind of military support has China been providing Russia? Because of the lack of data, and because both the Chinese and Russians were not really transparent coming to their customs data, I think we were not able to answer this question.
But I think the recent Wall Street Journal article was able to shed some light on this, and I think they quoted extensively the report from an investigative think tank here in here in Washington.
I think on this issue, what I like to emphasize is that any discussion about quality without a discussion of quantity is going to be selective, is only going to reflect a part of the truth, because if you look at the list of what the Chinese have provided based on these reports, the list of what China has provided to Russia, it looks very long and very impressive.
But then if you look at the quantity, the quantity in terms of the bilateral trade and in terms of this shipment, I would say that for normal arms trade or normal tech trade between China and Russia, the quantity is fairly small.
This suggests two things to me. The first one is that this is not a large-scale invasion of the Western sanctions or the U.S. sanctions, but instead, I think this is more a reflection of a sporadic cases of individual Chinese companies doing this to help Russia, or to simply export what Russia is in dire need for, and they’re eager to make a profit.
And the other takeaway
s that I have from this is that I find it very difficult to draw a linkage between this shipment or this ese trade with a government sanctioned approach or government sanctioned order for this to happen, because the scale is very small. And I guess you could say that, well, even if it is small, it still could be sanctioned by the central government, which is possible.
But I think that brings us to the question of what is a critical impact of this limited quantity of equipment or technology or even semiconductor chips in this case. I think one of the data, if I recall correctly, one of the data points pointed to China exporting $13 million worth of drones to Russia. And if you think about that, about $13 million, that’s quite a lot.
But then you can think about the price of the Chinese drones is at least $1 million each. Which means that while limited, well, something like a dozen drones, is that really going to change the change anything on the battlefield? So, of course, if you look at it as a black and white matter, did China send this equipment to Russia? Yes, it did. But the question is, did the Chinese equipment play a critical role on the battlefield? Well, Russia still has been losing. So I think this data and these facts needs to be interpreted from several different directions.
BISSET: That’s a really good point [about] the quantity and quality dynamic. Can you talk a little bit, just to follow up about economics and trade? Can you talk about the role of China continuing to buy Russian oil and natural gas? Is that helping to kind of continue to feed the Russia’s war machine? Is that playing a dominant role in keeping Russia afloat during this time?
SUN: The simple answer is yes, because that’s revenue creation. That creates the foreign exchange that Russia uses to continue its efforts, not only in the battlefield, but also continue its national economy. But if you look at the impact of the revenue creation on the war, while the simple fact is that Russia is still losing.
So how much has this revenue creation really helped Russia to win this war? I think that’s a separate question, and we’ll have a different answer. And if we look at, for example, the Chinese import of the Russian oil, I think one thing that people don’t pay as much attention to is that, yes, the value of the Chinese oil imported from Russia increased very significantly last year.
In fact, if we look at bilateral trade, the bilateral trade between China and Russia increased almost 30% in the year of 2022. Looking at the value of crude oil import from Russia alone, it increased by 44%. So it almost increased by about half of the value in 2021. But then again, other than the value, you also look at the volume, the volume of the Chinese oil imports from Russia only increased 8%.
So what does that mean? That means that the crude oil export that Russia sold to China was much more expensive in 2022 compared to 2021. And that’s because of the effect of the war that drove up the international energy price. Between China and Russia, the price of their oil trade has a complicated formula based on several different prices. It fluctuates. It’s not a fixed price. When the international oil price goes up, the price that China has to pay to Russia to buy oil also goes up, which is why when you look at is as a value: wow, it increased by 44%. And then you look at the volume: it only increased by 8%.
BISSETT: That’s a really helpful distinction. Thank you for unpacking that a bit more. I wanted to move on to some of the Ukraine-Taiwan parallels that we’ve all heard about over the past year. In our interview last March, you noted that Russia’s war in Ukraine could be viewed as a model or a template for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan in the future.
How has the war evolved as a reference point for China? And what lessons has China taken away from this?
SUN: The Chinese take away on this has been so rich right throughout the past year. And yes, I do think that the Russian war in Ukraine could be viewed and has been viewed as a model or a template or at least a comparable case for a Chinese invasion, or what the Chinese will call a “unification effort” of Taiwan. But it’s almost entirely a model or a template of what not to do, because the Russia fiasco on the battlefield has translated into a very sobering message to the Chinese officials, to the Chinese government, and especially the Chinese military, that you can think that you’re prepared for war really well. But when the war actually starts, it may go into directions that you never thought it would.
If you think about the Russian war in Ukraine before it broke out and right after it broke out, the whole world thought Russia was going to prevail in a week. Nobody thought that Ukraine was able to last for this long. But one year later, the battlefield situation has told the world that, well, we were wrong in our original estimate.
I think that is the first and most important takeaway for China, that an invasion plan of Taiwan will have to take into consideration all possibilities, and that things may not go as smoothly or swiftly as the Chinese would like, no matter how they think they will be successful.
And the second takeaway, I think, for China, is a prohibitive cost associated with such a war. When the Chinese look at Russia, yes, Russia is still able to sell their energy resources and it seems to have generated revenue for the year 2022. But when the Chinese look at the financial, economic, trade, technological, let alone military, political and diplomatic costs that Russia has to pay for this war that it is not even winning—I think the takeaway for China is that even if we are successful in taking over Taiwan militarily, we do have to consider whether these costs are going to be worth it.
Because remember, for the Chinese, unification is regarded as a component, a necessary component, of national rejuvenation, the rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. But at the same time, if the cost of the unification is precisely China’s rejuvenation of the great Chinese nation, then it’s not going to work. That equation no longer flies in the Chinese logic.
So all in all, the Chinese takeaway from the Russian war and Ukraine is that we need to be more careful, we need to be more cautious, and we need to be prepared that one, we may not win this war at this point, and two, even if we win this war, the cost will be so high that it may not be worth our while.
BISSETT: Well, all very interesting dynamics to think about. I wanted to take a bit of a step back and look at international power dynamics. We kind of explored this in our last interview, and you were uncertain as to how things might show themselves, as the war kind of was at a starting point at this time.
It’s really interesting, the war has simultaneously brought United States and its European democratic allies closer together. But it’s also highlighted some interesting fault lines and some shifts. Interestingly, countries such as South Africa, India, and Indonesia haven’t gotten onboard with the West. Could you talk a little bit more about this and some of your thoughts on the international power dynamics?
SUN: Yeah, this is a really complex question. If you look at the Chinese narrative and how the Chinese policy wonks unpack this issue, there are at least several different layers. So first of all, if you look at, for example, the UN voting, and look at the international opinion about this war, like you said, BRICS countries—South Africa, Brazil, India, and China—they are not necessarily in the same position as Western countries in terms of their strong criticism or condemnation of the of the war.
I think the Chinese will even argue, if you look at the broad scope of all the countries in the world, the West is still in the absolute minority coming to their position about this war. Coming more specifically to China’s relationship with the West, I think that’s where it gets even more interesting. The Chinese diplomatic position with a priority clearly has been one not to abandon Russia, but at the same time, also try to repair and amend the ties with Western countries, especially European countries, to make sure that China still has a relatively healthy relationship with them and retain access to, for example, high-tech products that are no longer available from the from the United States.
I think in terms of the international power dynamics, the war in Ukraine is seen as an event that has created major uncertainty for China’s future. But you know the Chinese logic, whenever there is a crisis, it also means opportunity. I think they are also seeing that a desired endgame for China, or desired position for China, is to put China in a relatively neutral position, so that all sides or both sides, Russia and the West, both want China’s support, both want China to stage support of their position. So that will put China in a basically invincible position. If each side all needs China’s support and needs China to be on their side, then China has the option and China has the leverage. But the danger of that strategy is that if you are stretched too thin between these two irreconcilable positions, you could anger everybody.
And I think at some point towards the end of last year, China was in that position because Russia has been very disappointed with Chinese lack of unlimited support to Russia during the war. But at the same time, I think European countries were also extremely frustrated with China not taking a righteous or just position or even an objective position on the war.
I think a lot of the diplomatic charm offensive, including [Chinese president] Xi Jinping’s commitment—position during his meeting with German Chancellor [Olaf] Scholz in Beijing, said nuclear weapons should not be used in any circumstances in an effort to repair this relationship. There is a delicate balance that China’s trying to manage, but it is still a delicate and a precarious position.
BISSETT: Speaking of Europe and Germany, China’s top diplomat Wang Yi has been in Moscow this week on his way to the Munich Security Conference, paving the way for a potential visit of President Xi to Russia later this year. What do you anticipate coming out of these meetings, and what should observers be looking for as we aim to filter the signal
s from the noise?
SUN: I think that’s a fascinating question because, like you said, Wang Yi’s trip and Wang Yi’s diplomatic engagements in Europe is clearly paving the ground for something. And that something, as a lot of Chinese policy wonks have been speculating, is indeed a visit of President Xi to Russia. You have to imagine what kind of detrimental effect that visit will have in terms of China’s relationship with the United States and China’s relationship with Europe, because it basically will prove everything that the Wall Street Journal and all these Western observers and the Western media have been saying about China being the supporter or even the accomplice of Russia in the war in Ukraine is true!
I think for China, how to manage the consequences or to do damage control of this trip is really the top priority because that will determine pretty much how much the improvement between Washington and Beijing can transpire. If Beijing does not strike the right message, if Beijing comes out of the visit looking like, well, China is indeed like the accomplice of Russia, I think a lot of the prospect or the hope for improvement of relations with the West, by the way, which is a priority of Chinese foreign policy in 2023 after the 20th Party Congress last year, a lot of these hopes will be in vain. They will not transpire. I can understand why the diplomatic groundwork is being is being paved. But it’s still going to be a very tricky position to take.
One thing that I suspect the Chinese will do, like I think Wang Yi earlier today or yesterday in his meeting with the Italian foreign minister [and deputy prime minister Antonio Tajani] mentioned, is that Xi Jinping is going to make a statement to call for peace on the one year anniversary of the of the of the Ukraine war. I think that potentially is something that the Chinese will test. You probably remember that in the spring of last year, China has implied that it could mediate, but it never did anything for the whole course of the past year.
But now I think China could indicate to Europe that, well, we have channels of communication open with Moscow and we also have some influence with Moscow. So instead of seeing us as the accomplice of Russia, maybe you can see us as a helpful dialogue partner so that we can help to facilitate communications, pass messages, and let’s talk about the end of the war.
BISSETT: We’ll be very curious to see if that announcement comes. I want to turn a little bit more specifically to U.S.-China relations with “balloongate” taking U.S.-China relations to a new low. How much does China’s support of Russia continue to affect the bilateral dynamic?
SUN: I think it is quite significant, if not the most significant, in terms of the bilateral relations. We know that for all the meetings that the working level officials have had since the Bali summit between Xi and [U.S. President Joe] Biden last year, a lot of the conversation has focused on the Russian war with Ukraine and how to proceed from where we are.
I do think that U.S.-China relations, at least in terms of the substance, are being significantly impacted by China’s relationship with Russia, which I think the Chinese understand, which is why I think the Chinese are sending Wang Yi to Europe and paving the ground for something that, at least in the Chinese view, seems to be inevitable.
But my question to Chinese interlocutors has been, why does this trip have to happen now? Why does this trip have to happen at a time when China is trying everything it can to improve relations with the West, both the United States and Europe? Do we really consider this the best timing? And the answer that I get is, well, you know, there’s pressure from Russia and there’s also the optics of China’s independent foreign policy. So i
It seems that there is a perception of absolute necessity within the Chinese leadership that this trip has to happen. But my recommendation or my advice to them is that, well, maybe the trip has to happen, but maybe you can reschedule it to a later date.
But then, of course, that’s also a tricky question. Xi Jinping is trying to meet with—well, at least the Chinese foreign policy operators are trying to craft a meeting between Xi Jinping and Biden again in September during the G20 summit in New Delhi. There’s also the hope that Xi Jinping hopefully can come to the APEC Summit in San Francisco in November this year. So that pretty much pushes the schedule to the end of the year. I understand that that there is a trickiness coming to the schedule.
But the funny thing is that in January and in early February, I think the U.S.-China policy community working on U.S.-China relations in both countries were discussing [U.S. House Speaker Kevin] McCarthy’s trip to Taiwan, what kind of damage that is going to do to the trend of improvement of bilateral relations between the two countries. But Now it seems that McCarthy’s trip is being postponed or to either later this year or next year. But Xi Jinping’s trip to Moscow is emerging as a much bigger stressor for the bilateral relations in the months to come.
BISSETT: Timing truly is everything, and it’s becoming more and more clear these days. And looking ahead, how do you think China will navigate its evolving ties with Russia? What limits might China place on its willingness to be a military and economic lifeline, especially if U.S.-China relations continue to deteriorate?
SUN: Well, we hope that the relationship between U.S. and China will not continue to deteriorate. After the past six years, all of us have been very traumatized and we’re all hoping, please let things be better this year! On the other hand, in terms of China-Russia relations, we have seen that the economic ties between the two countries are growing, which means that by the end of this war, Russia is going to be primarily an economic partner of China. People wonder what security significance or political significance Russia still carries. That’s a question that needs to be deliberated, because my sense is that what China has gained most from this war is a disillusionment about Russia being the power that China thought that it was, but Russia actually is not.
I feel that disillusionment is going to reflect in China’s relationship with Russia down the road. Look at Russia’s weakened, comprehensive national power and its power status. I will be so curious to see to what extent Russia is willing to tolerate its own junior partner status in this bilateral relation
s down the road.
But I think that also says that it will give China more leverage in this bilateral relation. It also will give China more ability to determine what it is willing and what it is not willing to do with Russia. So, yes, enhanced ties between China and Russia are always going to be a problem, I think from the U.S. perspective, especially coming to, for example, the joint patrol of the strategic bombers in northeast Asia and that their joint naval exercises in the Black Sea or now jointly with South Africa. This type of strategic alignment between China and Russia is always going to be seen as a problem for the United States. But we’re also looking at how this relationship will be undermined because of the result of the war in Ukraine. That is still evolving.
BISSETT: I think we’re running out of time, even though I’m sure we could keep analyzing the situation. I leave you the floor for any last thoughts or any wrap-up comments. We know you’ve been watching this closely. So I guess, are there any questions that you wish you had the answer to?
SUN: Yes. For example, I wish I could find the answer to the questions about what is going to happen to Russia’s arms sales, to both China and India. One could argue that while China and India have had this border standoff and this tension along their disputed border, and India has still relied on Russia for the delivery of their weapons system—70% of the weapon system used by the Indian military comes from Russian sources—so, is this going to have any impact over whether Russia will or will not continue their defense commitment or their arms delivery to India? I think that’s one curious question.
Another curious question is between China and Russia, we know that arms trade, mostly the Chinese purchase of advanced systems from Russia, has been a key component in their security cooperation. But now, as a result of the Ukraine war, I wonder whether the Chinese have the same level of confidence about the Russian weapons system and whether Russia will continue to have the ability to produce the weapons system that the Chinese are willing to buy.
Of course, there’s also other questions about China’s role in the Arctic. Russia is in a weakened status in the bilateral relations. Will it still be able to tell China “no” when it is uncomfortable with China’s aggressive approach or with China’s ambitious approach in the in the Arctic. There’s also the China-Russia competition in, for example, the civil nuclear reactor power industry globally. Russia has been a dominant player in that in that field. Presumably for the foreseeable future, Russia will need this revenue more than ever. But that’s also a field that the Chinese are very eager to dive into and to carve out a piece for itself. So there are all of these competitive aspects and potentially collaborative aspects between the two countries, and we don’t know the answers just yet.
BISSETT: Thanks so much, Yun, for once again sharing your expertise and analysis with us today. And many thanks to my National Committee colleagues behind the scenes for helping to craft today’s questions and make this interview happen. We hope you found the interview to be interesting and informative and that you will join us for future National Committee programing in the future.
Thanks again and goodbye.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. Please refer to the video interview to ensure accuracy.