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If China aligns itself with Russia, that could impact its reputation and economy

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Today, Russia is supposed to make a $117 million interest payment on its foreign debt. This is significant because this is the first payment due since the invasion of Ukraine and all those sanctions were placed on Russia. And there are questions about whether Russia may have to default. U.S. officials warn that Russia is turning to China for financial and military assistance to try and fill the gaps left by Western sanctions and a war in Ukraine that's becoming more costly by the day. In an interview with NPR, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said China is already on the wrong side of history for not speaking out against the aggression in Ukraine. And he added this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ANTONY BLINKEN: If China actually provides material support in one way or another to Russia in this effort, that would be even worse and something we're looking very carefully at. But I think this is doing real damage to China reputationally in Asia, in Europe, in Africa and other parts of the world, something it has to pay a lot of attention to.

MARTIN: That might be the view from the U.S. But how does it look from China? Joining us to talk about that, David Rennie, Beijing bureau chief for The Economist. David, welcome back to the program.

DAVID RENNIE: Good morning.

MARTIN: U.S. intelligence is saying that Moscow is talking to Beijing about financial and military assistance. Is that likely?

RENNIE: If you'd asked me two weeks ago, I'd have said it was vanishingly unlikely that they would be doing something as risky as pouring military aid into a war. China is traditionally very cautious about military adventures. That's one reason why it doesn't have a formal alliance with Russia, because Russia keeps doing things like invading, you know, Ukraine or Georgia a few years ago. But it is extraordinary the extent to which China's official line, which is high-minded, peace-loving neutrality, is actually being kind of offset now by a really blatant pro-Russian lean. And that is all about it's an anti-American message, that Russia is standing up to the American bully. And that is changing the dynamic here.

MARTIN: You say an anti-American lean. How do you see that manifesting?

RENNIE: You look at the fact that China keeps saying that Russia's legitimate security interests need to be taken into account. You see Russia being described as pushed into a corner by America, that America has been called the chief culprit behind this war, that it's pouring fuel on the flames of war by sending arms into Ukraine. And that's not just kind of random commentators. That's the spokesman for the foreign ministry at the podium here in Beijing. I mean, also, state media, which is incredibly tightly controlled here, is putting out a very pro-Russian message, an anti-American message. So most Chinese people are getting a vision which is extraordinarily different from the one that the rest of the world sees. They don't talk about kind of bombed maternity hospitals in Ukraine or even the suffering of the Ukrainian people. This is about a bullying West and a bullying America, and Russia trying to stand up for itself in Ukraine.

MARTIN: What kind of assistance could China substantively provide Russia in this moment?

RENNIE: So although we've had American intelligence talking about things like drones and missiles, it may be that right now, in the very short term, the most important assistance is, on the one hand, this kind of - China has, you know, deep pockets and could potentially bail out Russia in important ways. And so that kind of stands behind Russia and sends a message that maybe sanctions, which is the West's strongest weapon, may not work because maybe China is going to stand behind Russia as a kind of guarantor, but also just diplomatic support. You know, despite, as I say, this kind of official line of neutrality, it's a pro-Russian, anti-American, pseudo-neutrality. And we've seen China use its weight at the United Nations and other organizations to just give Vladimir Putin cover. And that's fundamentally because China seems to be very keen for Vladimir Putin not to lose in a humiliating way in Ukraine. And so it is not using its influence over Russia to call for an end to this war right now. It is sitting and waiting and, according to diplomats here in Beijing, hoping that Vladimir Putin wins, perhaps with the fall of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. And then China can call for a cease-fire over the rubble of what remains of Ukraine.

MARTIN: But even if China gives just public support, let alone financial or real military aid, I mean, the U.S. administration, the Biden administration, has said there's going to be consequences for that. Are they consequences that China can bear?

RENNIE: So if the consequences are that Chinese banks and companies have to be very cautious about doing business with Russia because they don't want to get caught by the same sanctions imposed on Russia, then we've seen in the past China be extremely canny about navigating similar sanctions that were imposed after the invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014. So I think China isn't that scared of that. But if there's going to be more diplomatic pressure on China as a kind of rogue that is joining Putin as a kind of pariah, I think that is going to just strengthen the feeling here in Beijing that they are locked in a kind of contest with America, and they have to hang tough.

MARTIN: So David, are we really looking at a future world order that aligns Russia and China directly against America, Europe and other Western countries?

RENNIE: So China doesn't want to be bound to Russia, come what may, in every circumstance. But they certainly want a fellow autocracy back-to-back as they confront an America which they assure is going to try and hold China down. And that does involve a new world order where the rules change and it's no longer democracies declaring what is right and what is wrong. And that appeals to China very much, but not at the price of being bound to Russia, whatever Russia says or does.

MARTIN: David Rennie, Beijing bureau chief for The Economist. He joined us on Skype. David, thanks as always for your analysis.

RENNIE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.