If there's some good news coming out of Russian President Vladimir Putin's misbegotten war on Ukraine, it might be this: China's alliance with Russia appears to be mostly lip service.
That wasn't a sure bet. Just days before the invasion — during the Beijing Olympics — Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping issued a joint statement declaring a kind of team-up against U.S. power and NATO expansion, vowing cooperative efforts to assert some control over the internet and (more positively) fight climate change.
"Friendship between the two states has no limits, there are no 'forbidden' areas of cooperation," the statement said. As it turns out, there are some limits.
Reuters reported Thursday China is refusing to supply needed airplane parts to the Russian aviation industry, which has already been badly squeezed by American-led sanctions. That's a big deal: Boeing and Airbus jets make up most of the country's commercial aviation fleet — without access to those Western companies, Russia had hoped to turn to China as an alternative. But this week, U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo said Chinese companies could be penalized for evading the sanctions. Now Russia might go begging for parts and help from Turkey and India.
China has also eased its controls on government exchange rates, letting the fast-collapsing value of the ruble fall against the yuan even more quickly. The ruble's decline was already making it much more expensive for Russians to buy Chinese goods — companies like Huawei and Xiaomi have cut their smartphone exports to Russia as a result — and now that process will only accelerate. For China, though, the decision makes sense: Sticking with the old rules "would require China's central bank to subsidize Russian buyers of Chinese goods by giving them more yuan for their rubles than market forces said Moscow's currency was worth," The Associated Press notes.
All of this doesn't mean Xi has abandoned Putin. China's foreign minister this week said relationships between the two countries are "rock solid," and China's state media outlets are amplifying Russian propaganda about the war. "That China has chosen to follow Russia's lead in deliberately mischaracterizing the war only serves to underline Beijing's closeness to Moscow," CNN's Simone McCarthy wrote this week.
Perhaps. But talk is cheap. It costs China little to promote the Russian narrative, which has the benefit of having an anti-U.S. bent. But China wants to stay integrated in a world economy that has suddenly cut off Russia from its embrace. For the moment, the actual dollars-and-rubles-and-yuan price of coming to Moscow's aid in tangible ways — in defiance of most of the developed world — might be a bit more than Beijing wants to pay.