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Will China Change Its Approach to the Ukraine War?

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Will China Change Its Approach to the Ukraine War?

China’s ambivalent stance on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine reflects its national interests, and is unlikely to significantly change.

Will China Change Its Approach to the Ukraine War?
Credit: Depositphotos

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine brought major complications for China’s foreign policy. In the face of strong international demands for Beijing to influence Moscow’s policies and uncertain regional geopolitics, Chinese policymakers have struggled to find the positioning that best serves China’s national interests. Further complicating the situation, the unsuccessful rebellion initiated by the paramilitary organization Wagner Group called into further question Moscow’s ability to achieve its original strategic goal in the Ukrainian battlefield. 

With the twin developments of this Eurasian conflict and Russian domestic politics, Beijing, driven by national interests, will have to reconsider its strategy in dealing with the two sides and seek the answer to the puzzle of how to serve as a responsible mediator.

An obvious clue to China’s predicament is that Chinese diplomats have been expressing completely contradictory positions on Ukrainian territory. In April, China’s then-ambassador to France, Lu Shaye, questioned the status of former Soviet countries in international law, implying that Ukraine was not a sovereign state. China’s Foreign Ministry soon disavowed the remarks. In May, the Chinese government’s special envoy for Eurasian affairs, Li Hui, allegedly tried to convince officials in Poland, Germany, France, and the European Union that they should recognize the occupied Ukrainian territories as belonging to Russia in order to achieve a ceasefire. One month later, however, Fu Cong, China’s envoy to the EU, stated that Beijing could back up Ukraine’s aim of reclaiming its territorial integrity based on the 1991 borders – including Crimea, which has been occupied by Russia since 2014.   

These push-and-pull expressions reveal that China has not found a unified formula to deal with the erratic dynamics of Russia’s war in Ukraine and its domestic politics. For Beijing, adopting an ambiguous approach is the most rational choice in the face of intricate national and geopolitical interests.

Why Does China Maintain Strategic Ambiguity in the Russia-Ukraine War?

In retrospect, China has adopted seemingly ambiguous and paradoxical approaches to tackle the Ukraine crisis. Beijing has refrained from participating in condemnation or international sanctions led by major Western powers against Russia, instead blaming the outbreak of war on NATO’s expansion into Eastern Europe. These critical views have been embedded into Chinese media coverage of the war. Initially, Chinese mainstream media referred to the war as a “special military operation,” aligning with Russia’s rhetoric. As the Russian army faced setbacks on the battlefield, resulting in a protected war, Chinese media quietly shifted to recognizing it as a “conflict,” although they still evaded using the term “invasion.” Chinese officials, meanwhile, describe the situation as the “Ukraine crisis.”

China’s behavior does not mean it is leaning toward Russia, however. A range of diplomatic actions, such as the refusal to provide aid and weapons to Russia, the offer of approximately $1.57 billion in humanitarian assistance to Kyiv, and China’s vote in favor of a U.N. resolution that mentioned Russia’s” aggression” against Ukraine, among others, seem to indicate that Beijing is strenuously maintaining a balance among various parties involved. This strategy was manifested in an official document issued by China’s Foreign Ministry, which claimed Beijing’s neutral position on the conflict offered a 12-point proposals for peace, including “respecting the sovereignty of all countries,” “ceasing hostilities,” “resuming peace talks,” “protecting civilians and prisoners of war,” and “keeping nuclear power plants safe.”

In the West’s view, this statement was hollow, because it neither denounced the Kremlin’s war crimes nor requested the withdrawal of the Russian army from occupied Ukrainian territories. Several factors explain China’s consideration in staying strategically ambiguous in the Russia-Ukraine war.     

Ongoing tensions between China and the Western states, especially the United States, make it all but impossible for Beijing to swiftly establish a consensus with Washington regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A breakthrough came in late June when U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken finally visited China for the first time, breaking the deadlock in bilateral ties since the global pandemic. Blinken was followed by U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, who visited China this week. Yet, it is unrealistic to expect China-U.S. relations to warm significantly in the short term.  

Notably, a battery of unresolved divergences remain over Taiwan, trade, high technology, security in the South China Sea, etc. On the Ukraine issue specifically, China resents the West’s imperative, even accusatory, attitude of asking Beijing to play a more influential role in Eurasia. Hence, it is difficult for Chinese leaders to commit to mediating the Ukraine crisis in a way that pleases Washington, particularly as long as they do not see any reciprocal efforts from their counterparts to settle the existing disputes between China and the United States and/or European Union.

No Good Outcome for China From the Russia-Ukraine War

Chinese policymakers are also concerned that rash decisions could impact the complicated China-Russia relationship. From Beijing’s perspective, any outcome of the Russia-Ukraine war will bring both positives and negatives. Moscow’s partial or complete victory in the war would enhance its role as a leading military power in Eurasia. This, in turn, would strengthen the quasi-alliance between Russia and China by intensifying their cooperation in traditional security against Western Europe and the United States, ultimately forcing the rivals to concede terms of the shared geopolitical interest. Given the frosty China-U.S. relations, it is reasonable that Beijing will keep close ties with Moscow to hedge against potential political and economic risks and losses.

That said, a more powerful Russia may provoke security concerns in Beijing. In recent centuries, China has deeply learned historical lessons about remaining vigilant toward this ambitious neighbor with a history of chauvinistic tendencies. The Sino-Russian relationship is far from being as cohesive as the outside perceives it. In particular, the silent stand-off between the two states in Central Asia, home to rich natural gas and oil reserves, has escalated. The first in-person China-Central Asia Summit held on May 18 and 19 in Xi’an was Beijing’s attempt to fill the void in the region while Russia is distracted by the conflict with Ukraine. China’s ambivalence toward a Russian victory in Ukraine is shown through its decision to limit support for Russia to non-military areas, while simultaneously capitalizing on the conflict to maximize its interests. 

On the other hand, China would be vulnerable to the chain reactions of Russia’s failure in Ukraine. Whether Putin’s regime can stabilize domestic politics throughout the war is crucial to the survival of China’s party-state system under Xi. If this war ends in disgrace for Russia, Beijing fears that Moscow’s authoritarian system will accelerate toward collapse due to mounting internal and external pressures, thus depriving China of one of its most crucial allies. 

Against the backdrop of prolonged hostilities between China and the Western countries, it is geopolitically impossible for Beijing to stand with Ukraine. Doing so would be tantamount to sending a message of weakness to adversaries while undermining the nationalist ideological system China’s leaders have so painstakingly built up. Therefore, even though China is the largest trading partner of Ukraine, the former is hardly likely to risk destabilizing the CCP’s regime by leaning toward Kyiv in the Russia-Ukraine war.

China’s Ukraine Strategy: Driven by National Interests

China is moving to play a more pivotal role in managing various regional disputes. On March 10, Beijing successfully brokered a reconciliation agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which seemed to bolster observers’ belief that China can help mediate the Ukraine crisis. However, the Middle East model does not map well on to the Eurasia puzzle. The Saudi-Iran rapprochement resulted from substantive diplomatic efforts from Iraq and Oman before China’s involvement. Besides, Riyadh and Tehran were both willing to compromise. The Russia-Ukraine dispute is much farther from a settlement, as the two leaders are playing a zero-sum game with support from their respective camps. In this context, China will be more concerned about the potential damage to its credibility should it undertake serious mediation efforts that fail.

China’s strategy in Ukraine proves that national interests always drive the great powers’ decisions in state-led mediation. In watching the Russia-Ukraine war, Chinese policymakers might be reminded of a humiliating history where another great power sat on the sidelines during a brutal invasion. In the aftermath of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, the Chinese Nationalist government asked the United States for help. Washington’s politicians predictably prioritized U.S. interests over the moral obligation to world peace that the U.S. had preached since President Woodrow Wilson at the end of World War I.

Instead, the United States played a fence-straddler. Top diplomat Henry Stimson staked out the position, since known as the “Stimson Doctrine,” stating that the U.S. government would not recognize any territorial change owing to armed conflict and also warned against any agreement between Japan and China that limited free commercial intercourse in the region, thereby harming U.S. interests in China. Consequently, China had to fight against Japanese aggression alone for over 10 years, until more Western powers were dragged into World War II. 

Ironically, China is nearly repeating this scenario 92 years later, but has now reversed roles.