Assuming (key word) that this is true for argument’s sake in order to establish the basis for the forthcoming thought exercise, then that informal decision would likely be attributable to several factors.
Late September saw President Biden and State Department spokesman Price confirming that China is tacitly complying with the US’ anti-Russian sanctions. The first told CBS that “Thus far, there’s no indication they’ve put forward weapons or other things that Russia has wanted. That was then followed by the second saying during a press conference on Tuesday that “We warned both publicly and privately at the time that the PRC would face consequences if it provided security assistance to Russia or if it assisted Russia, in a systematic way, evade sanctions. We haven’t seen the PRC do either of those.”
Russia and China haven’t publicly rebuked the reports but both still closely coordinate their grand strategic efforts to accelerate the global systemic transition to multipolarity. This is proven by President Putin revealing that he spent most of his meeting with President Xi on the sidelines of the SCO Summit in Samarkand discussing bilateral economic, financial, and trade matters. Nevertheless, reports have swirled that leading Chinese companies like Huawei have curtailed their Russian operations in order to avoid the US’ threatened secondary sanctions that could harm their interests in Western countries.
While China continues to purchase energy from Russia and the yuan has reportedly been used by India to facilitate some bilateral transactions, there curiously aren’t any claims from either countries’ media that the People’s Republic has provided security assistance to that Eurasian Great Power or helped it systematically evade sanctions. This observation suggests that there might actually be some credence to what Biden and Price have said about Beijing tacitly complying with Washington’s sanctions against Moscow, at least with respect to the most significant ones, since there’s no way they could hide it.
Assuming (key word) that this is true for argument’s sake in order to establish the basis for the forthcoming thought exercise, then that informal decision would likely be attributable to several factors. First, China’s export-oriented economy is in a relationship of complex interdependence with the US-led West’s Golden Billion that purchases a significant share of its goods and services. Second, this makes it very susceptible to external shocks like former President Trump’s trade war and the economic-financial consequences connected to Western governments’ responses to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Third, it therefore follows that China would be extremely reluctant to do anything (no matter how morally right and legal in the eyes of international law) that could risk provoking the Golden Billion into expanding its unilateral sanctions regime to include its world-class companies (no matter how morally wrong and illegal in the eyes of international law). Fourth, the reason for this hesitancy is because its dual circulation paradigm (which has nothing to do with “decoupling” and everything to do with hedging against structural risks during this age of uncertainty) hasn’t yet fully achieved its intended purpose.
Fifth, this means that Chinese support for Russia that violates the US’ most significant sanctions and thus provokes secondary ones against its own companies or possibly even the country as a whole would disrupt the entire geo-economic basis of its grand strategy to expand mutually beneficial trade and investment ties with all countries (especially the Golden Billion). With this insight in mind, the only realistic scenarios in which China would violate those unilateral restrictions would be if Russia agrees to massively lopsided deals or urgently requires its support to avoid collapse, both of which are unlikely.
Only upon the full maturation of its dual circulation paradigm of equally prioritizing international and domestic trade would China feel comfortable countenancing the possibility of doing anything that could provoke the Golden Billion into imposing extremely harsh sanctions against its leading companies or the country as a whole. By that time, however, China would likely expect that their relationship of complex interdependence would already be so strong that such decision could seriously harm its Western partners and would thus be unlikely, therefore giving Beijing more flexibility to violate their sanctions.
Even in the event that they were still imposed for political reasons and fully complied with by the EU due to its US patron’s coercion, the domestic circulation aspect of its new economic paradigm would provide enough of a hedge to blunt the full impact of those sanctions’ intended consequences. As it presently stands, however, it can be assumed that the Chinese economy isn’t yet as “strategically autonomous” as it needs to be in order to continue growing at its usually high levels under those difficult circumstances. If it was, then China wouldn’t be tacitly complying with the anti-Russian sanctions like Biden claimed.
To be clear, until official Chinese and/or Russian sources confirm that Biden did indeed tell the truth (seeing as how broken clocks are right twice a day as the cliched saying goes and this could potentially be one such instance), it shouldn’t be taken for granted that everything is as simple as he said. Nevertheless, the conspicuous lack of official rebukes from both Great Powers understandably invites suspicion that all might not be as it seems. Even if he’s right, it wouldn’t imply that there’s “trouble in paradise” between these strategic partners, but just that China isn’t strong enough to fully defy the US.
Should that be the case, then it’s sensible why China wouldn’t risk its objective national interests (which are inextricable in this context from its grand strategic ones) if there’s no pressing need for it to do so. The only two scenarios that could make it seriously countenance risking the West’s economic wrath is if violating their sanctions is the only thing that would avert Russia’s collapse or if President Putin for whatever reason was willing to agree to massively lopsided deals. Neither are realistic though since his country’s military and economic resilience has been proven throughout the past seven months.
All told, the present state of strategic affairs is such that Russia doesn’t need China to violate the US’ sanctions since it’s already holding up pretty well on its own without that reportedly happening, which its partner is also fine with since it doesn’t have anything to gain by fully defying America right now. Russia and China still closely coordinate their grand strategic efforts to accelerate the global systemic transition to multipolarity, but both seem to have calculated that it’s not worth making this process any more chaotic than it currently is by provoking the US to expand its destabilizing sanctions regime.