Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Beijing has engaged in rhetorical gymnastics in an effort to portray itself as “impartial” but sympathetic to both sides—even though the West has rejected the notion of impartiality in the face of Russian president Vladimir Putin’s brutal and unjustifiable attack on the Ukrainian people. Beijing’s nods to Kyiv have included offering humanitarian assistance, calling for a negotiated peace as soon as possible, and affirming that China’s longstanding support for the principle of upholding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries applies to Ukraine. Needless to say, China’s refusal to condemn Putin’s flagrant violation of that very principle has eclipsed these gestures and reinforced the widespread impression that Beijing has essentially taken Moscow’s side. Although Beijing so far has not provided Russia with substantial relief from economic sanctions or military support, it has echoed much of Moscow’s disinformation and blame aimed at the United States. And as the scale of the atrocities committed by Russian troops has come to light, China’s ambassador to the United Nations all but endorsed Moscow’s denials by advising against a rush to judgment “before the full picture is clear.”
Many foreign observers are puzzled why Beijing has essentially aligned itself with the international pariah that Putin has become. Some have readily attributed it to Chinese president Xi Jinping’s partnership with Putin in the defense and promotion of authoritarianism. Indeed, their shared vision for the world order was outlined in detail in a joint statement issued on February 4—three weeks before the attack on Ukraine—when Putin visited Beijing for the opening of the Winter Olympics. But the “axis of autocracy” refrain oversimplifies Xi’s much more complicated, and still evolving, cost-benefit analysis of how to position China relative to the war in Ukraine.
On one side of the balance sheet, it is self-evident, at least in the West, that Beijing would greatly enhance its international reputation if it “did the right thing” by denouncing Putin’s horrific and unprovoked attack on Ukraine. At the very least, this would have validated and restored some credibility to Beijing’s espoused commitment to the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity, and noninterference in other countries’ affairs. It might also have forestalled a substantial degradation in European views of China at a time when Beijing has been eagerly courting European Union and European NATO members. And it might have provided an opportunity for a positive breakthrough in China’s severely strained relationship with the United States.
Beijing, however, has clearly opted for the other side of the balance sheet. What outweighs these potential benefits, the liability of association with Putin and his war, and the suspension of some of China’s core principles? First and foremost is the value that Beijing assigns to its relationship with Moscow. It is important to emphasize that Xi’s investment in his personal relationship with Putin is only one layer of China’s more fundamental investment in the principles that have driven its strategic alignment with Russia. These are the principles spelled out in the recent Sino-Russo joint statement, which focused on the shared pursuit of multipolarity, “reform of global governance,” and especially resistance to what Beijing and Moscow view as Washington’s “unilateralism” and infringement on their respective security interests.
The joint statement cataloged a series of complaints against what the two sides characterized as the United States’ efforts since the end of the Cold War to impose its versions of democracy and international law on the rest of the world. As a remedy, Beijing and Moscow called for the “establishment of a new kind of relationship between world powers on the basis of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and mutually beneficial cooperation.” This, they say, would be “superior to [the] political and military alliances of the Cold War era” to which Washington remains wedded.
Of particular relevance to the Ukraine issue was the declaration in the joint statement that “Russia and China stand against attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions.” Beijing joined Moscow in opposing “further enlargement of NATO,” supporting instead new “long-term legally binding security guarantees in Europe.” Moscow likewise endorsed Beijing’s opposition to “the formation of . . . opposing camps in the Asia-Pacific region” and “the negative impact of the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy.” Chinese officials have since amplified this linkage. In a speech nearly a month after the invasion of Ukraine began, Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng said Washington’s “Indo-Pacific strategy is as dangerous as the NATO strategy of eastward expansion in Europe. If allowed to go on unchecked, it would bring unimaginable consequences, and ultimately push the Asia-Pacific over the edge of an abyss.”
This underscores one of the primary reasons that Beijing is unwilling to condemn Russia’s behavior in Ukraine: its empathy with Moscow’s view that NATO expansion, to potentially include Ukraine, reflects a longstanding American disregard or dismissal of Russian security concerns and threat perceptions. This does not mean that Beijing considers Putin’s violence against Ukraine to be justified; on the contrary, all indications are that Chinese leaders have been surprised by and deeply uncomfortable with the nature and extent of the war. But it does mean that Beijing agrees with Moscow that Washington bears some responsibility for fueling the crisis through its pursuit of NATO expansion that excluded and targeted Russia, as well as its encouragement of Ukraine’s efforts to join a Western sphere of influence at Russia’s expense. Indeed, Beijing is essentially equating Washington’s disregard for Russian security concerns since the end of the Cold War with the longer history of Western “humiliation” of China and what Beijing sees as Washington’s persistent disregard of Chinese sovereignty and security concerns.
Beijing’s position on Ukraine cannot be fully understood without recognition of this crucial factor. China is not going to side with the United States against Russia if it means exonerating Washington of its share of the blame for the crisis. Indeed, Chinese diplomats and the Chinese media in recent weeks have doubled down on the assertion that the United States is the ultimate “instigator” of the war in Ukraine. This is why Beijing, in addition to pleading for peace talks between Kyiv and Moscow, has insisted that the United States and NATO should “have dialogue with Russia to address the crux of the Ukraine crisis and ease the security concerns of both Russia and Ukraine.”
China is also not going to side with the United States against Russia if it means retreating from or abandoning the agenda and vision outlined in the February 4 Sino-Russo joint statement, which—notwithstanding Putin’s current violation of it—genuinely reflects Beijing’s overall strategic objectives. In short, China is not going to join a U.S.-led anti-Russia coalition because doing so would violate more of Beijing’s core principles than Putin has with his invasion of Ukraine. Finally, Beijing is not going to denounce Putin because, as Chinese ambassador to the United States Qin Gang said in an American television interview, “condemnation doesn’t solve the problem.”
It is thus clear that Beijing’s cost-benefit analysis of how to respond to the war in Ukraine is inseparable from its strategic posture toward the United States and its calculation that the U.S.-China strategic competition is deepening. As noted earlier, the Ukraine crisis has offered a potential opening for improved U.S.-China relations, but it is hard to see that opportunity being seized at a time when bilateral mistrust is so great, and when Beijing and Washington have divergent views on what fueled the crisis in Ukraine—and probably diverging interests there. Under these circumstances, Beijing likely sees little benefit to be gained from sacrificing its relationship with Moscow in favor of embracing a Washington that has declared China the greatest external threat to the United States and the “rules-based order”; framed the U.S.-China relationship as a struggle between democracy and autocracy; made “stiff competition” the focus of its approach to China at the expense of engagement and cooperation; and appears (in Beijing’s view) to be moving toward a de facto “one China, one Taiwan” policy. Chinese leaders see little reason to expect that any of these elements of what they see as Washington’s hostile approach to Beijing would be altered or relaxed if China denounced Putin’s war in Ukraine.
There is no doubt that China is in a highly uncomfortable position with its implicit acquiescence to a war that is so widely condemned and in violation of its own principles. Chinese leaders almost certainly are hoping that Kyiv and Moscow will quickly negotiate an armistice that relieves Beijing of its dilemmas and restores some semblance of Ukrainian sovereignty. In the meantime, Beijing has been taking steps to mitigate or refute its diplomatic isolation. Chinese diplomats have been especially active across the developing world among countries that have neither condemned Russia nor joined sanctions against it. Beijing may calculate that it can ride out the crisis at an acceptable cost because of China’s global economic clout, the resonance of its criticism of American “unilateralism” and “hegemonism,” and wider empathy with Moscow’s complaints about NATO expansion.