January 31st Video Call
Chinese Defense Minister and Central Military Commission member Dong Jun, held a video call with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu on January 31st. During the call, they discussed increasing defense cooperation between their countries, with Shoigu congratulating Dong on his appointment as Defense Minister. Shoigu also reminded Dong of his long relationship with Russia, pointing out that he attended a course at the Military Academy of the General Staff and headed China’s contingent for joint naval exercises in 2015 and 2016.
Dong said that “we [China] supports you [Russia] on the Ukrainian issue” during his turn to speak during the meeting. He then said that China will continue to support Russia despite the continued pressure from the United States and the European Union, which even threatened European-Chinese defense cooperation. Dong said that the pressure will not hinder continued Chinese-Russian cooperation, regardless of attempts by the United States and the West to isolate Russia.
Dong also said that China appreciates Russia’s “strong support” regarding Taiwan as well as other topics of mutual interest to both countries. The Chinese defense minister also said that the United States attempts to keep its global hegemony by targeting China and Russia, but history proves that hegemony will always fail. Dong then said that China and Russia should assume “responsibility as great powers” and that cooperation between countries is a pillar that maintains global peace.
Dong’s comments are nothing new or significant but should be seen in the context of Russia wanting China to increase its support for the invasion of Ukraine and extend it to direct material support. Russia also wanted to prevent China from increasing or resetting its relations with the United States and the West. Russia hopes to accomplish this by preventing China from maintaining its balanced approach of not picking a side between Russia and Ukraine in the conflict and forcing it to side with Russia.
In September 2022, the Russian Duma released a statement after then Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress Chairman Li Zhanshu visited Moscow. Li met with members of various Russian political parties along with Duma members during his two-day visit. The statement directly quoted Li as saying, “China understands and supports Russia on issues that represent its vital interests, in particular on the situation in Ukraine.” However, the quote only appeared in the Duma’s press release and not in either China’s Ministry of National Defense statement or Chinese state news outlets.
The reason why Russia did this was due to the Russian military suffering significant setbacks in Ukraine, such as its retreat from the city of Izium and the loss of approximately 3,000 sq. km of territory, in the weeks leading up to the meeting. Another aspect of Li’s statement was his vagueness regarding what kind of support China officially provides to Russia. The vague statement allows China greater diplomatic leeway to deny that the country provides support to Russia to evade sanctions, access to currency, and dual-use equipment. The statement also allows China to continue its balanced approach to the conflict, supporting Russia diplomatically and on some economic level while calling for a negotiated end to the conflict.
The same concept can be seen in Russia’s Defense Ministry releasing the video of the January 31st call. Russia sustained significant material and troop losses in Ukraine in the past few weeks and would likely need increased support to sustain itself during the winter. Russia also began its winter bombardment campaign against Ukrainian infrastructure and would require additional materials to replace missiles and other munitions fired into Ukraine. Furthermore, China also met with American officials to restart the working group on precursor chemicals, as well as meeting various European leaders throughout January. Russia likely viewed the meetings as China potentially decreasing its support for the country in exchange for increased foreign investment and other economic promises from the United States and Europe. Any decrease would likely have a profoundly negative impact on the Russian economy due to the U.S.’s and Europe’s sanctions, which left it heavily dependent on China.
Dong said China will support Russia on the “Ukrainian issue” during the video call but did not give context to what support China will provide. Like Li’s September 2022 statement, his statement was worded to allow China to continue its approach to the conflict and not be seen as siding with Russia. However, he also highlighted how China will continue its cooperation with Russia despite it continuing to hamper Chinese-European security cooperation. The second statement indicates that China wanted to highlight to Russia that their continued relationship comes at the cost of better relations with Europe and the United States. Furthermore, the statement also serves as a reminder to Russia that China views their relationship as one of convenience and not one of kindred countries that want to rewrite the rules-based order.