China’s muted reaction to the Wagner mercenary group uprising against Russia’s military belies Beijing’s growing anxieties over the war in Ukraine and how this affects the global balance of power. China’s ruling Communist Party called the swift end of the 22-hour revolt Moscow’s “internal affair,” with state media affirming China’s support for Russia.
Chinese observers said the incident showed how overblown Western rhetoric was regarding the “Russian internal conflict” and that President Vladimir Putin’s hold on power remains secure. But the uprising also threatens to deepen growing anxieties in Beijing over Russia’s war in Ukraine.
China claims to be neutral over the war but has backed Russia in practice, blaming the US and NATO for provoking Russia’s invasion of the eastern European country while continuing with frequent state visits, economic exchanges and joint military drills with Russia.
“Of course, this incident also shows the complexity, delicacy, and uncertainty of Russia’s internal situation,” Shen Yi, a professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai, wrote on his blog.
The Wagner rebellion has “likely raised doubts about whether Beijing made the right bet in designating the Kremlin, and Putin specifically, as a close ally and partner,” said Patricia M. Kim, an expert on Chinese politics and foreign policy at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington, DC.
“Chinese leaders must be concerned that China’s strategic alignment with a weakened Russia may turn out to be a net burden rather than a plus to China’s strategic interests,” Kim said. It remains unclear whether China will nudge Putin to “cut his losses and scale back his ambitions in Ukraine,” and whether the Russian leader would be receptive to any such suggestions, she said.
Economic competition with the US is also a key issue, accentuated by the prospect of economic sanctions targeting wealthy Russians, Kim said “Watching Russia’s isolation has also increased urgency in Beijing to become more self-reliant, to reduce its overall vulnerability,” she said.
Chinese state military academics worry about Russia’s underwhelming performance in the war, and that China has not sufficiently adapted its defense structure away from the former-Soviet Union model on which it was based. As to the recent developments in Russia, “China realises that the system is more brittle than they thought, that Putin is more incompetent than they would love to see,” said Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. “What leads to this frustration to an extent is that China cannot do anything about it,” he said.
Some draw comparisons with China’s relationship with North Korea, which similarly benefits from Chinese economic aid and diplomatic support at forums such as the United Nations. “It’s not that China wants to be closer to Russia. It’s that the US is forcing that,” Wang Huiyao, a Chinese foreign policy advisor and president of the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based think tank.
Chinese and Russian officials have also had travel and financial sanctions imposed against them by the US while watching how the Ukraine war has reinvigorated pro-US alliances in Asia.
Chinese foreign policy experts are worried that the war has revitalized NATO and the US alliance with Europe, and fret that this could prompt a renewal of American alliances in East Asia.
Chinese military experts grilled Western diplomats in private about reports that NATO might open a liaison office in Japan, worried that it might represent the expansion of the organization’s interests in East Asia, three people with knowledge of the matter told The Associated Press.
A civil war or major political conflict in Russia would have a definite impact on relations between Beijing and Moscow, particularly with the Chinese president seeing the two aligning to challenge the US-led liberal world order.
“Historically, the US never trusted Russia and has always attempted to dismember it into smaller countries. To the United States, Russia and China are their major threats,” said Li Xin, director of the Institute of European and Asian Studies of Shanghai University of Political Science and Law.