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Scholar Ho-fung Hung on China-Russia Relations & Whether Beijing Could Mediate Ukraine Peace Deal

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China’s top diplomat Wang Yi met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow this week, where they reaffirmed the close relationship between the two countries. The high-profile visit comes just days before the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. For more on China’s relationship with Russia and its role in the Ukraine war, we speak with Ho-fung Hung, professor of political economy and sociology at Johns Hopkins University.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

As we continue our coverage of the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we turn now to look at how the war has impacted Russia-Chinese relations. On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin hosted China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, in Moscow. This is Putin.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: [translated] International relations today are more difficult. They have not improved after the collapse of the bipolar system, but, on the contrary, they have become more sharp. In this regard, cooperation in the international arena between the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation, as we have repeatedly underlined, plays an important role in stabilizing the international situation.

WANG YI: [translated] I think we have a very good opportunity today to continue our close strategic cooperation and contact in protection of our mutual strategic interests. Under the strategic leadership of Chairman Xi Jinping and President Vladimir Putin, the relationship between China and Russia has adopted a mature character. It is solid and will withstand all tests of shifting international situations. It is important to coordinate our positions on the bilateral agenda, as well as on regional and international spheres.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, and the Russian President Vladimir Putin. Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to visit Moscow in the coming months to meet with Putin. Meanwhile, the Biden administration is warning China against supplying Russia with lethal military aid, saying doing so would be crossing a red line.

Joining us from Baltimore, Maryland, is Ho-fung Hung. He’s a professor of political economy and sociology at Johns Hopkins University. His books include Clash of Empires: From 'Chimerica' to the 'New Cold War' and The China Boom: Why China Will Not Rule the World.

Professor, welcome back to Democracy Now! Can you talk about the significance of just, well, what’s happened in the last year? And then you’ve got the U.S. kerfuffle with China over the balloon, which has really intensified hostility. And then, finally, you have yesterday, Wang Yi, the foreign — the top diplomat, meeting with President Putin, and their message to the United States and the world.

HO-FUNG HUNG: Yes. Thanks for having me.

Actually, it’s something that everybody expected to happen, that China is getting closer and closer to Russia, because when we look back a year ago, right before the Russian invasion of Ukraine happened, Xi Jinping and Putin had a summit in Beijing and issued a Russia-China joint statement on February 4th, 2022. And in the joint statement — and I urge everybody to actually go back and reread that statement — that actually it laid out a very clear and systematic vision of a new world order that both Russia and China agree on. That is, Russia and China should have their own spheres of influence. In the case of Russia, it is the former Soviet space, including the former Soviet states and Eastern Europe. And in China, of course, it’s South China Sea and Taiwan question and the Asia-Pacific region. And in the statement, that they pledge supporting each other, desire to get rid of U.S. allies and U.S. influence in their spheres of influence. So, it is a very clear manifestation of their shared strategic interests.

So, of course, and then, after the statement was issued, shortly, that the war happened. Russia invaded Ukraine. And from a Beijing perspective, that they had all the reasons to wish Putin success in his adventure in Ukraine, because if the West failed to stop Putin and if Putin succeeded in Ukraine, then the Western or international — U.S.-international alliance would lose its credibility, and then it will provide China with a larger freedom of action over the South China Sea issues and over Taiwan.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Ho-fung, could you also respond to the question of whether China can play a role in mediations or diplomacy in negotiating an end or a ceasefire in this war? I mean, European officials, including Macron, have said that China should play such a role. China is due to issue a position paper tomorrow or before tomorrow. What do you expect that position paper to say? And what prospects do you think there are that China could play a key mediating role?

HO-FUNG HUNG: Actually, if China is willing to do it, that it has the potential to do it. Of course, that China is important economically, and now Putin depends a lot on China’s economic assistance and in financial — in evading financial sanctions and providing all this nonlethal assistance to Russia right now. So, definitely, Putin will listen to China.

And also, historically, actually, before the war, China has been very close to Ukraine. And let’s not forget that Ukraine helped China get the first aircraft carrier, that in late 1990s, after the Soviet breakup, China purchased a Soviet-era aircraft carrier from Ukraine with all the engine and blueprint intact, so it is now trying to retrofit it into the China first aircraft carrier. This is the Liaoning. And also, Ukraine is included in China’s Belt and Road Initiative, and China is pouring investment in infrastructure in Ukraine before the invasion.

But, unfortunately, that after the war broke out, after Russia started invading Ukraine, and China has been, at least on the kind of — from the perspective of the optics, has been very close to Russia, but not so to Ukraine. For example, there are other states that claim neutrality and saying that they are waiting to deal with a mediator, like Turkey, which is a part of NATO. So, Erdoğan also visited Russia and met with Putin, but also he also visited Ukraine and met with Zelensky, so it seems more two sides. And also Israel is doing the same, that the Israeli leaders are meeting with Putin and talking to the Russian side, and also they are talking to the Ukrainian side and providing substantive humanitarian assistance to Ukraine.

China right now, over the last year, that they have been talking to the Russian side and expressing — and the China propaganda machine is repeating all these Russian lines or interpretation of the war, and they don’t even call it an invasion. They don’t call it a war, and they call it a special operation, and blaming U.S. for starting the war. And so far, we don’t see a lot of diplomatic effort on the China side to talk to the Ukraine side, and let alone meeting with Zelensky. So, it is quite unfortunate that over the last year China has been — at least the perception is that it’s very much on the Russian side, rather than playing both sides.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Professor Ho-fung, what about the question of China supplying Russia with military equipment and weapons? I mean, China has denied that it will do so, but there are reports that that will happen. I mean, U.S. officials claim that that’s likely. Zelensky has said that will lead to world war. The American ambassador to the U.N. has said that would be crossing a red line. What is your response? Do you think that’s likely?

HO-FUNG HUNG: I think it will be likely, but it will be a more ambiguous situation, because you look at how China support, for example, the North Korean nuclear program and Iran’s and Syria, all these sanctioned states. And China has been helping these sanctioned states, helping these states to evade sanctions for a long time. But it is far from a formal governmental support of it.

And in China, there’s a lot of companies, state-owned companies or state-connected private companies. Some of them are even companies not in mainland China but in Hong Kong, which has a special status. So, what I expect would happen is that these companies would provide assistance. Now they are — I think they are already providing nonlethal assistance, financial assistance. There’s a lot of evidence in it. For example, a company, a trading company, in Hong Kong has been found providing chips and components and key supplies to support the Russian drone program. So, a lot of these companies are going to help Russia.

And I won’t be surprised if, in the end, some of these companies are caught providing lethal support to Russian war effort. But then the government just look the other way and let these companies help Russia. And then, when people are trying to hold China’s government accountable, they just say that “It is not the government doing it. It is the company. We don’t know about it.” So, this kind of thing has been going on regarding China assistance of North Korea and Iran and other sanctioned states to evade sanctions, so I won’t be very surprised if China is doing the same with Russia.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Professor Ho-fung Hung, we want to thank you so much for being with us, teaches political economy and sociology at Johns Hopkins University.

Coming up, we look at how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has impacted Africa. Back in 30 seconds.

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