- China and Russia have misaligned priorities on Ukraine. Moscow is more concerned about protecting its sphere of influence, while China is more interested in advancing its economic and strategic relations with Kiev. This fits with Bobo Lo’s larger observation that Sino-Russian relations have been beset by “historical suspicions, cultural prejudices, geopolitical rivalry, and competing priorities.” making bilateral ties more of an “axis of convenience” than a true alliance.
For these reasons, Washington may be able to count on Beijing to at least remain neutral in the conflict. In addition, Washington should set realistic expectations for the extent of potential cooperation with China, given Beijing’s strategic partnership with Moscow and its concerns about Western interference in Ukraine.
But China should also not be counted out of the solution. As a country with clear stakes in Ukraine’s stability, and as a long-time advocate for the norm of sovereignty, China should be expected to play an affirmative role in the conflict. This means promoting political reconciliation and joining other donors in offering financial aid to the new government in Kiev. It also means continuing to voice support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, including in the UN Security Council.
As Thomas Christensen has argued , there are advantages to China becoming more “assertive” in international affairs. China has the interests and the resources to contribute to the peaceful resolution of crises when they occur, and can be at its best when it does not sit on the sidelines. The current crisis in Ukraine offers an excellent opportunity for China to play just such a role.
Joel Wuthnow, Ph.D., is a China analyst at the CNA Corporation, a non-profit research and analysis organization located in Alexandria, Va. You can follow him on Twitter: @jwuthnow.