Politics

Xi 'can't stomach doing something that might make Putin look bad,' says political analyst

Key Points
  • China does not want to take a position on Ukraine that could undermine Russia, said Scott Kennedy of Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.
  • It doesn't appear that Beijing has provided any military assistance or violated the economic sanctions on Russia, he said.
  • "But they've not said no. And I think what the U.S. is trying to do is make sure that that doesn't happen and they just can't get a yes out of the Chinese or any kind promise," he told CNBC's "Squawk Box Asia" on Monday.
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China's policy on Ukraine is 'as clear as muddy water,' says think tank

China does not want to take a position on Ukraine that could undermine Russia, said Scott Kennedy of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.

It doesn't appear that Beijing has provided any military assistance or violated the economic sanctions on Russia, he said.

"But they've not said no. And I think what the U.S. is trying to do is make sure that that doesn't happen and they just can't get a yes out of the Chinese or any kind promise," he told CNBC's "Squawk Box Asia" on Monday.

President Joe Biden spoke to his counterpart Xi Jinping for nearly two hours on Friday about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He warned China of a global backlash and "consequences" if Beijing helps Russia in its war on Ukraine.

"I think that means that we're going to continue to see China, in an argument that isn't really necessary for them to have, except for the fact that Xi Jinping, just simply can't stomach doing something that might make Putin look bad," Kennedy said.

China policy 'clear as muddy water'

On Saturday, China's state media reported that Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China is on the right side of history with regard to the Ukraine crisis — and time will prove it.

"We have always stood for maintaining peace and opposing war," Wang said, according to CGTN News.

Beijing will make its own assessment of the situation in an objective and fair manner, he added.

"We will never accept any external coercion or pressure, and we will also oppose any groundless accusations or suspicions targeted against China," Wang said.

"Foreign minister Wang Yi said that Chinese policy is clear as it could be. It's as clear as muddy water is what it is," said Kennedy. "What they really need to do — is take a firm position on this."

China should use its influence and put pressure on Russia to come to the negotiating table and withdraw its forces, or at least accept a cease-fire, he added.

"I think the Chinese are in a real bind because regardless of how this turns out in the battlefield, Putin's losing and Russia's going to lose," he said, adding that could test Beijing's "friend without limits" position with Moscow in the "foreseeable future."

China has refrained from condemning Russia so far, and has refused to call Russia's assault on Ukraine an "invasion."

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Bert Hofman, director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, said China isn't putting much pressure on Russia at this point.

"People think, some pressure from China on Russia would help, that doesn't seem to be in the cards for now," he told CNBC on Monday.

"Even though they've expressed … the willingness to engage on the humanitarian side, the need for peace, but they have not yet made the extra step to actually create the circumstances for that," he noted.

U.S.-China tensions

Political consultancy Eurasia Group said over the weekend that U.S.-China tensions will remain high and may rise, though continued diplomatic contact would limit the risk of serious miscalculation.

It added that U.S. officials are deeply frustrated with China's position and believe Beijing has "actively ignored U.S. entreaties and warnings — and it remains to be seen if the direct message from Biden will alter this."

China is unlikely to provide military aid, but as Russia's economic concerns mount, "Beijing will be more inclined to offer a financial lifeline, especially if it fears for the survival of Putin's regime," its analysts said in a note.

Xi would also prefer to work more directly with Europe to deal with the Ukraine conflict, they said.

They added that a key watchpoint is if "Xi engages European leaders in coming days, which is likely, and would be a positive sign of Beijing separating U.S.-China relations from efforts to defuse the crisis."