Russia’s military buildup along its border with Ukraine is testing the possibility of a Moscow-Beijing axis lining up against the U.S. and its allies.
Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s meeting with Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping in Beijing this month fed speculation that a new alliance could form between the two great powers as they face off with the U.S. over a range of issues.
Russia and China have backed each other’s positions on opposing a NATO expansion in former Soviet republics and buttressing China’s claim to the self-governing island of Taiwan.
But the relationship remains lopsided. China’s confident rise as an economic and political force contrasts with Russia’s growing isolation and reversion to Cold War tactics of intimidation and bullying.
China also remains opposed to actions that could damage its territorial ambitions, from the South China Sea and Taiwan to the Indian border.
China has not criticized Russia over its moves against Ukraine, and has joined in verbal attacks on Washington and its allies. Addressing the Munich Security Conference over the weekend, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi lashed out against the U.S., accusing “a certain power” of “stirring-up antagonism.”, according to AP.
However, in response to a question from conference Chairman Wolfgang Ischinger, Wang said the “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of any country should be respected and safeguarded, because this is a basic norm of international relations.”
“Ukraine is no exception,” Wang added.
He also stated that major powers should act in defense of global peace and no country should “repeat the past mistake of forging rival alliances.”
That chimes with China’s longstanding opposition to military alliances and often invoked — but often breached in practice — policy of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs.
The comments were also in keeping with Beijing’s quest to replace a global order underpinned by alliances it considers threatening to its own development. Those include NATO and newer groupings joining the U.S. with Japan, India, Australia and other states with which China has substantial foreign policy disputes.
China is not putting its weight behind Russia’s foreign policy gambits, but the frostiness in relations with Washington shows no sign of thawing, said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations and director of the Center on American Studies at Beijing’s Renmin University of China.
“I believe that the Chinese government will continue to take care of China itself in the first place rather than take care of Russia,” Shi said. In the meantime, relations with Washington will remain fraught, particularly over the issue of Taiwan.
Beijing blames heightened tensions with the U.S. on what it calls a false depiction of China as a strategic rival.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of Richard Nixon’s visit to China that led to the establishment of formal diplomatic ties in 1979 and a new era of trade and economic relations. No joint celebrations have been announced.