At the U.N., Beijing Begins to Shift Away From Putin

In late September, a Chinese foreign ministry delegation held a closed-door meeting at the United Nations’ New York headquarters with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin and gave him some good news: Beijing was prepared to vote in favor of Ukraine’s bid for a seat on the U.N. Security Council despite a campaign by Russia to thwart its adversary’s ambitions, according to U.N.-based diplomats familiar with the meeting.

The move marked a diplomatic setback for Russia, which has sought, and generally won, China’s support at the United Nations in its geopolitical and ideological struggles with the West. It also sent a clear signal that Russia’s closest and most valuable ally at the U.N. is willing to pursue its own interests, even if at Moscow’s expense.

China and Russia consider one another strategic partners and they strive to align their votes at the United Nations as closely as possible, in part to act as a brake on the projection of American power. But maintaining that partnership is exacting an increasing diplomatic cost for China as Russia has grown assertive in ways that have threatened the interests of Beijing’s commercial partners, from the Middle East to Ukraine.

Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, China has expanded its commercial links with Ukraine, which this year surpassed the United States as the largest importer of Ukrainian corn, according to the Financial Times. In the end, Ukraine – which ran uncontested — secured a respectable 177 votes for its Security Council bid from the 193-member General Assembly. Unlike major powers such as Russia and the United States, Kiev will not have the authority to veto Security Council resolutions.

A senior Security Council diplomat said Beijing and Moscow are still aligned on issues ranging from Iran to North Korea. But the diplomat said the alliance is weakening as the two countries find their priorities “diverging” on a range of issues, from South Sudan to Ukraine and Syria, where Beijing favors a more intensive diplomatic push to end the fighting between Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad and his enemies.

“It is not in China’s interest that Russia is able to annex Crimea nor to provide such strong military support, with Iran, to Assad,” the diplomat said. “Something is definitely happening. There is a separating of China and Russia.”

A dramatic shift — say open Chinese opposition to a Russian initiative — is unlikely in the near future, the diplomat said. Still, the United States and its Western allies have been encouraging China to distance itself from Russia into order to discourage Russian President Vladimir Putin’s most aggressive tendencies. If the effort succeeds in weakening Beijing’s alliance with Moscow, Washington and its partners hope they would be able to apply greater political pressure on Russia to curb its military activities in Syria and Ukraine.

The Russian alliance with China on the Security Council has long stood as a key check on American ambitions at the U.N., preventing Washington from getting its way on many of the most pressing international security issues of the day.

Beijing and Moscow have cast four joint vetoes of resolutions aimed at forcing Assad from power and triggering a war crimes investigation into atrocities in Syria. When China needed help killing off a procedural motion in the U.N. Security Council to block discussion of human rights abuses by North Korea, Russia had its back.

During the Bush administration, China and Russia joined forces to block American initiatives to condemn human rights abuses in Burma in 2007 and Zimbabwe in 2008. And for years they have worked together to limit the scope of U.N. sanctions against Iran and to prevent the council from confronting human rights abusers around the world. In December 2014, for instance, China and Russia did not show up at a side meeting of Security Council members hosted by Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, on the dire situation in Darfur. They also boycotted a meeting hosted by Lithuania on human rights and press freedom in Ukraine.

Still, there are clear signs of strain in the relationship. When Russia began its airstrikes in Syria last month, China offered a measured, if hardly enthusiastic, response. “We have noted that the relevant military action, as the Russian side put it, is taken at the request of the Syrian government with the purpose of combating terrorist and extremist forces inside Syria,” according to a statement from the Chinese foreign ministry.

Earlier this month, China voted with the West to reinforce sanctions against South Sudan’s warring parties and to help create a war crimes court to prosecute war crimes. Russia abstained, saying that sanctions would only harden the resolve of key parties to keep fighting. Russia, for its part, stood alone in vetoing two resolutions, including one which would have established a war crimes tribunal to prosecute perpetrators of the shootdown of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine. Russia also killed off a resolution in July that would have declared the 1995 mass killing of thousands of Bosnian Muslim men in Srebrenica by Bosnian Serb soldiers a “genocide.” Russia, which has strong historical ties to Serbia, argued that the measures unfairly singled out the Bosnian Serbs for crimes during the blood dissolution of the former Yugoslavia. China abstained in both cases.

Even in areas where they have joined forces, they have done so for different reasons. When Europe pressed the Security Council to adopt a resolution authorizing the use of force in the Mediterranean Sea, Beijing and Moscow teamed up to stop the diplomatic push. They didn’t have the same reasons for their votes: Moscow was concerned that the resolution provided too sweeping a mandate to use force, while Beijing worried it might constrain Chinese trade by granting the West the power to board and seize ships on the high seas.

“There have been lot of cases where Beijing is trying to put clear blue water between itself and Moscow,” said Richard Gowan, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Gowan said it was unclear whether China’s separation from Moscow was limited to peripheral issues or whether it amounts to a larger strategic shift, but said he didn’t “think Beijing is going to walk away from the Russians any time soon.”

The Russians and Chinese, he added, need to stand up against the West on a range of issues, particularly Iran, where the United States has warned that it would reimpose sanctions if Tehran is caught cheating on the nuclear deal.

Russia, which has been subject to Western sanctions since its annexation of Crimea, has worked to bolster its ties with China. Putin has tried to build a close relationship with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, meeting more than a dozen times. Earlier this year, Xi attended a World War II commemoration in Russia that had been boycotted by other big powers from the West. In July 2013, China and Russia held their largest joint naval operation ever in the Sea of Japan. In May, they also conducted their first ever joint naval exercise, including live fire drills, in the Mediterranean Sea.

“It’s a very comfortable position, to have such a strong supporter and partner,” Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s U.N. ambassador, told Newsweek. “We have a strategic partnership with China, including here at the Security Council. We try to vote as closely as we can–not always in the same manner, but we try.”

They don’t always succeed, in part, said a second Security Council diplomat, because Russia and China have a “marriage of convenience more than deep seated ideological convergence.”

“Where the Chinese and Russians do converge they have worked together, for instance on stopping human rights coming up before the council,” the diplomat said. “But China and Russia’s interests don’t always converge and so they won’t automatically vote together.”

Indeed, China’s diplomatic strategy at the United Nations can be hard to decipher. In their public statements, China’s diplomats rarely stray from anodyne proclamations about the need to uphold state sovereignty and resolve conflicts through dialogue. China sometimes appears to be the junior partner, following initiatives taken by Russia, which conducts its diplomacy with far greater bluster, backed by a willingness to use force to achieve its aims.

But officials say in the real world Russia plays second fiddle to China, which despite an economic downturn, can still boast the world’s second-largest economy and which wields its soft power with far greater effect than Putin may accomplish by sending Russian fighters jets and attack helicopters into Syria.

During his first visit to the U.N. as China’s leader, Xi pledged last month $2 billion in development assistance to the world’s poorest countries, and vowed $100 million to the African Union over the next five years to help establish an African standby force and bolster an African program to respond rapidly to unfolding crises. He also pledged to develop a standby force of some 8,000 Chinese blue helmets that could be quickly deployed in U.N. peacekeeping missions.

The Sino-Russian relationship is “not a simple as people are trying to picture [it]: that they are close friends versus the West. It’s really not like that,” said Philippe Le Corre, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe.

Putin, he said, is desperately in need of friends and has been seeking to cultivate closer relations with China. But China, he said, has remained uncommitted and uneasy because of Russia’s military actions in Ukraine and Syria.

“They are playing some kind of game: ‘look we are against the West together.’ But they don’t agree on a lot of things,” he said. “The Russian economy is suffering and China doesn’t want to be isolated from the West because it does want to become a global player.”

Photo credit: Mark Ralston/AFP/Getty Images