Some Western officials and analysts hope that Beijing might play a mediating role between the West and Russia over the Ukrainian conflict - but that is probably unlikely.
As Washington and Moscow exchange messages in an effort to address the Ukrainian conflict, Russian President Vladimir Putin will make an important visit to Beijing as one of the top guests at the Winter Olympics’ opening ceremony in China.
But there’s an interesting coincidence related to Putin’s visit. Back in 2008, the Russian president was also a guest in Beijing, which held the Summer Olympics at the time, when Moscow’s troops also invaded parts of Georgia, a Caucasian state.
Some thought that Putin used the Olympics, when the global audience was focused on a sports event, as an opportunity to invade Georgia. They think that he may also order another invasion, while he is in Beijing on Friday, this time to occupy another neighbouring state, Ukraine.
But the Chinese government wasn’t impressed with Russia's Georgia invasion in 2008 and it will likely not welcome another one during the Olympics, experts say.
“The Chinese are not thrilled with the idea of the conflict. But at the same time Russia is a close ally (of China) in many ways,” says Raffaello Pantucci, a senior associate fellow at Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), a British think-tank.
Under increasing Western pressure, Russia and China have recently become closer and Beijing certainly wants the international community to hear the Russian point of view regarding the Ukrainian conflict, according to Pantucci.
“I don’t think they will get in the way of what Russia does, but I also think that they are not hoping to get involved in some sort of conflict (regarding Ukraine), which they think will be hugely damaging and will cause instability and will inevitably overshadow the Olympics, which they put so much effort into,” Pantucci tells TRT World.
During the 2014 escalations, when pro-Russian rebels took over parts of Eastern Ukraine and Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula, China lost a lot of investments in Ukraine, says Charlie Parton, the EU’s former First Councillor on China, and a senior associate fellow at Royal United States Institute (RUSI), a British think-tank.
As a result, “China does not really want a war” in Ukraine, according to Parton. “China did not support the Russian invasion of 2014. In the UN, it abstained (from the vote). I think it generates a hands off approach to people’s calls”, Parton tells TRT World.
But it does not mean China will be willing to play a mediating role between Russia and the West, says Pantucci, while the country might still lobby Western states not to react to Russian actions in Ukraine. “They will talk about doing that. I don’t think they will seriously do it,” says Pantucci.
There is also no adequate trust between the West and China required to make Beijing an honest broker for the Ukrainian conflict, Pantucci says.
But in the end, according to Parton, “China will rather favour a diplomatic solution.”
While analysts see similarities between the 2008 Georgia situation and the current conditions in Ukraine, Pantucci thinks that “context is different” and China made “no pretence” to show how displeased it was with what happened in Georgia in 2008.
China has always held serious concerns about any country breaking apart and border changes as a result of the use of military force by rival states because they fear that the same thing might happen to them too, according to Parton.
China controls large areas from the Muslim Turkic-majority Xinjiang autonomous region to Tibet, another autonomous region, where diverse populations live.
Unlike Russia, which lost so much territory across the Baltic region and Central Asia as a result of the predecessor state Soviet Union’s collapse and ensuing border changes, China has protected both its political system based on the communist party-rule and its territorial integrity.
As a result, China is approaching the Ukraine crisis with a lot of caution, not wanting to see any border changes, which might be a bad omen for Beijing.
But for Putin, what he does across the Ukraine-Russia border is about regaining the country’s lost territories after the collapse of the Soviets, which he called "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century".
Also Putin sees a lot of similarities between Ukraine, whose history is closely tied to Russian history, and Taiwan, a largely unrecognised breakaway country from China.
“China has long-standing economic interests in Ukraine. It’s not huge numbers, but it’s substantial,” Pantucci says. But it does not determine the way China goes to Ukraine, he adds. “I think the way China goes to Ukraine is determined by its relation with Russia”
Despite Chinese concerns, the nature of current ties between Russia, China and the West are very different compared to the 2008 crisis. In recent years, Beijing has increasingly been demonised by the Western alliance unlike in modern history, when the US and its allies thought that China could “potentially be coaxed into engaging with the West”, Pantucci says
“That’s a key change factor. Now the relationship between Beijing and Moscow is far closer in part because both of them see themselves in a lot of conflicts with the West than that was back in 2008. I think the context is different. That’s why they are really not so comparable,” Pantucci says.
Despite the two crises being incomparable in some respects, tightening relations between Russia and China might also give greater confidence to Moscow to go its own way in Ukraine - more so than during the 2008 period.
In addition to that, Moscow, one of the world’s most powerful militaries, has not shied away from using its armed forces during different crises unlike China, a country, which has been more of a follower of the soft power doctrine and economy-first approach to foreign policy.
“I don’t think Chinese will tell Russians that ‘You can’t invade Ukraine. Full stop.’ And then, I don’t think Russians will probably think very seriously about listening to them. I don’t think China does that very often,” Pantucci sees.
“The Chinese will not tell the Russians not to do something.”