China could provide a major buffer for the Russian economy, which has been hit with sanctions in response to its invasion of Ukraine. But local experts are hopeful that they will remain neutral.
Sanctions, asset freezes and withdrawals of international companies are hammering the Russian economy and U.S. officials have warned that China would face similar measures should they step in.
Harvard scholar Oleh Kotsyuba and Northeastern University professor Mai’a Cross explained Wednesday why they think China will remain neutral on NBC10 Boston's weekly series, "Russia-Ukraine Q&A."
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Russia asks China for help
Before the invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping announced a "no limits" strategic partnership they said was intended to counter U.S. influence. China's position has been to ultimately blame the U.S. and NATO's eastward expansion for the conflict.
"As we all know, 20 days before the invasion, Xi and Putin were in talks and at the end of those talks, they declared that their friendship had no limits," Cross said. "So now those limits are very much being tested."
While China's government has expressed "concern" over the conflict in Ukraine, it has refused to call it an invasion or condemn Russia, largely pushing Moscow's narrative of the war on its state news outlets.
"If China does help Russia, China is looking at similar types of sanctions. Not necessarily immediate, but a ratcheting up of these types of sanctions, and Russia, for its part, would then benefit from this China buffer, it would buy some time and some resources," Cross said. "So it's a critical point right now for Russia and China."
But China has close ties with both Ukraine and Russia, Cross noted. In 1992, China was among the first to establish close ties with the newly independent Ukraine. It trades with Ukraine but also gets arms from Russia, Cross said.
"It doesn't necessarily want to choose between the two, and it's put in this difficult position," Cross said. "Now it's in a situation where it essentially might find itself in a proxy war with the U.S., so in effect, it's having to choose between the U.S. and Russia."
The powerful alliance of the G-7 economies, composed of the U.S. and its European and Asian partners, can slap harsh secondary sanctions on any entity that supports Moscow.
The problem is that China's economy is the second largest in the world and is a key part of global supply chains. It impacts global markets far more than Russia does. Any move to sanction China would mean much greater global effects, and likely economic pain for the West, too.
"All of the sort of strategic rationale would point towards not helping Russia because the Chinese economy is so globalized and it's now seen the power of these Western and global sanctions," Cross said. "China is far more reliant on its foreign reserves. It has the largest foreign reserves in the world. And they've already seen how Russia no longer has access to its foreign reserves."
Kotsyuba said sanctions against China would look different than what Russia has seen, but would likely still be effective, pointing to past attempts by the Trump administration to pressure various Chinese businesses.
"China produces, you know, the bulk, or at least a large amount of goods for the rest of the world. And so if the rest of the world, including those democratic countries, stopped -- it might be gradually -- but still stopped importing those goods, the Chinese economy would be in shambles," Kotsyuba said. "And so I think that the choice here, indeed, is not just the United States versus Russia, but the world versus Russia. Who do you choose?"
Both Kotsyuba and Cross are hopeful that China will remain neutral in order to avoid taking on the credit and sanctions risks of Russia's rapidly deteriorating economy. They said the line would likely be drawn at any supply of weapons as well as anything that would undermine sanctions against Russia.