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New flashpoint: US may ask Chinese tech firms to bin Russia

As big tech companies from the West swiftly and happily comply with new rules that prohibit interactions with Russia, Chinese companies will soon feel pressure to do likewise – and counter-pressure to resist such calls.

Ride-sharing company DiDi Chuxing is currently the poster child for the dilemma facing Chinese companies. Last week it decided to withdraw its services from Russia in response to its invasion of Ukraine. But after much protest at home, DiDi reversed that decision.

It’s not hard to see why. In early February, Russia and China re-affirmed their relationship as having “no limits” and essentially declared they are best friends forever.

For Russia, the new pact meant it found itself the biggest and toughest friend it’s possible to have, even as it earned the world’s ire by amassing troops on Ukraine’s border.

China has few formal allies – and none are major powers – so an open-ended partnership with Russia is welcome. It also increased certainty for an element of the Belt and Road plan that China is very keen to promote: rail cargo shipments from China to Europe, through Russia, that take many days fewer than maritime shipments and avoid strategic bottlenecks.

With the ink scarcely dry on the Russia/China friendship pact, The Register imagines the Party representatives at DiDi (most Chinese businesses have Communist Party members in senior positions, and they have a remit to ensure government policy and corporate policy align) made it plain the company ought not to do anything that was not in the spirit of the renewed relationship.

Ridesharing is hardly strategic for China, but semiconductors are vital. And even as China tries to develop a local industry that can meet all its needs, Middle Kingdom tech companies and silicon manufacturers need US technology to build their products.

The dry and empty husks of Huawei’s enterprise server and smartphone businesses tell China all it needs to know about what can happen when the US stops sending tech across the Pacific.

Now for the fun part: Moscow buys a lot of Chinese silicon. According to Bloomberg Washington wants Chinese semiconductor companies to join in its ban on tech sales to Russia.

The US is therefore trying to set its two main enemies against each other, weeks after they staged a spectacular public display of mutual affection.

But there was one awkward moment during that display. Chinese president Xi Jinping made sure to mention Ukraine and that China has “long held the basic position of respecting all countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity and abiding by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter.”

“China is prepared to work with other members of the international community to promote common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security, and to resolutely safeguard the UN-centred international system and the international order underpinned by international law,” added a statement from China’s Foreign Ministry.

Russia’s invasion is in no way permitted or justifiable under the UN-centred international system.

If Chinese tech firms brush off US requests to stop dealing with Moscow, Washington will be well within its rights to ask Beijing what on Earth it meant by the quotes above – and why it’s too hard to have tech companies act to make those words come alive.

China could retort that the world’s best chipmaking tech is 160km away in Taiwan, and that it is high time that rogue province rejoined the fold. Such an assertion would be an enormous provocation.

This tangle, dear reader, is why diplomatic corps recruitment programs seek out people who possess both great intellectual prowess and enormous emotional intelligence.

If the US does indeed press Beijing on tech exports, we should all hope they got that recruitment right. ®