Why China Won’t Break With Russia Over Ukraine
China does not stand to gain from a weakening of Russia.
The Chinese authorities are confronting serious problems over Russia’s military operation in Ukraine. On the one hand, the closeness of relations between Beijing and Moscow is at its highest level in years. As far as Beijing is concerned, Russia’s importance stems from its role as a supplier of raw materials and its value as a geopolitical ally in the confrontational relationship with the United States thrust upon China during Donald Trump’s presidency. Foreign Minister Wang Yi expressed the situation in the famous formula in January 2021, when he stated that Sino-Russian strategic cooperation had no limit, no forbidden zones, and no ceiling. A year later, China and Russia reinforced this political line in a joint statement adopted during a visit by President Vladimir Putin to China, in which, for the first time, Beijing associated itself clearly with Russia’s demands to halt the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) expansion, as well as calling on the organization, jointly with Moscow, “to abandon its ideologized cold war approaches, to respect the sovereignty, security and interests of other countries, the diversity of their civilizational, cultural and historical backgrounds, and to exercise a fair and objective attitude towards the peaceful development of other States.”
On the other hand, the start of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine has raised a number of new factors that could have negative consequences for Beijing. Firstly, the unique situation calls into question the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) entire ideological line, aimed at providing a rationale for the fundamental difference between the aggressive, hegemonic policies of the United States and its allies, with the disrespect it has for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of other countries and the double standards it demonstrates towards obedient and independent states, and the peace-loving line of China and its friend Russia, directed towards peaceful co-existence and constructive cooperation with everyone, including the West. Secondly, the newly arrived instability in Europe, brought about by armed hostilities, Western sanctions, and retaliatory measures by Russia, creates problems for the Chinese economy: rising energy prices and the possibility of Chinese companies being affected indirectly by sanctions aimed against Russia, etc. Thirdly, with the operation ongoing, doubts have arisen in China about Russia’s ability to fulfill its goals quickly and emerge from the conflict stronger, rather than in a weakened state.
All of this has led to a debate amongst Chinese experts, which can be detected in various publications and through contact with Chinese colleagues, even in the face of the country’s ever-growing ideologically closed nature. Chinese writers continue, on the whole, to argue that the current conflict has been brought about by years of provocative U.S. policy. A prime example of this is a series of articles by military analyst Jun Sheng published at the end of March in several editions of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army newspaper, Jiefangjun Bao, and then duplicated on numerous websites. Jun, whose name or pseudonym sounds like “voice of the army,” lashed out with scathing criticism of U.S. foreign policy, claiming it was the United States that had laid the fuse which has sparked the current conflagration of war in Ukraine.
Doubts over the ideological justness of Russia’s actions have been expressed strongly by the well-known Chinese Russia expert, Yang Cheng, in an article that appeared on February 28 in the Shanghai newspaper Tangso yu Zhengming (Exploration and Free Views). Outlining Russia’s argument and recognizing the “original sin” committed by NATO, which should have been disbanded following the collapse of the USSR, he notes that Russia, too, should show strict observance of the principle that “the security of one country cannot be ensured at the expense of the security of other countries.” Now the impression is forming that both sides believe in the idea, professed by political realists, of the “law of the jungle,” which speaks of the inequality of large and small states that has been in effect in international politics since the nineteenth century. China is taking the right action in this situation, not taking sides, opposing the zero-sum game, and calling for a peaceful settlement, respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, and effective compliance with the purposes and principles of the United Nations (UN) Charter.
Expert opinions on how the conflict shall end and the position China should take vary widely. For example, Hu Xijin, a prominent journalist and former editor of the Huanqiu Shibao (Global Times) newspaper, a mouthpiece for supporters of active power politics, unexpectedly came out with some very moderate proposals. In a long message posted on the Weibo social network on March 4, he wished Russia a “soft landing” and the restoration of a secure strategic environment to its west. At the same time, he spoke out against attempts to “Russify” China’s foreign policy, in other words, against calls to do the same as Russia. In his view, China’s strength, in contrast to Russia’s, is not so much about its army but its economy and, thus, China should act more moderately and over a longer period, using diplomacy, tying the United States closer to itself economically and gaining a competitive edge.
In an interview published on the Fenghuang (Phoenix) Television website in late February, Feng Yujun, deputy dean of Fudan University’s Institute of International Studies, commented that the key principle determining the trajectory of Russia’s development has, historically, always been the tension between its great-power ambitions and its lack of power. Today, Russia is once again embarking energetically on restoring its empire; however, apart from its strategic nuclear weapons, its overall state power is characterized by many flaws. Consequently, only time will tell whether Russia shall be able to restore its empire or sink to being a “solitary island.” In another interview published on a foreign website on March 12, deputy director-general of the Public Policy Research Center of China’s State Council Advisory Office, Hu Wei, even questioned whether Russia would be able to achieve its aims, which would put it in a difficult situation. That is why China should renounce its neutrality and not provide assistance to Moscow. Hu Wei believes that this would lead to an earlier peace and “help build China’s international image and ease its relations with the U.S. and the West,” earning “widespread international praise for maintaining world peace.”
Of course, all of these views, which differ on many points, can only be labeled private opinions not directly related to the official line, despite the close association of the commentators with China’s official structures. Be that as it may, they are interesting from the point of view of understanding the discussion taking place in the country.
As regards China’s official position, it is formulated in official statements from China’s foreign ministry, as well as by diplomats and, of course, the country’s leadership. Perhaps, it is expressed most clearly in an article by China’s ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, which was published on March 15 in The Washington Post specifically for a Western audience. The high-ranking Chinese diplomat rejected American media claims that China had allegedly known in advance about Russia’s plans and had even asked Moscow to delay its military action until the Winter Olympic Games had finished in Beijing. In addition, he noted that China was a major trading partner of both Russia and Ukraine, and that over 6,000 Chinese citizens were living in Ukraine, meaning that Russia’s military efforts run counter to Beijing’s interests. He said that China would have done everything possible to prevent an armed conflict if it had known about it in advance. The Chinese ambassador also denied claims that Moscow had allegedly requested help from Beijing and noted that China supported peace talks and “will continue to coordinate real efforts to achieve lasting peace” since its ultimate purpose is “the end of war and support regional and global stability.”
Chinese leader Xi Jinping also confirmed this position during an online meeting with U.S. president Joe Biden on March 18, when he declared: “China does not want to see the situation in Ukraine to come to this. China stands for peace and opposes war. This is embedded in China's history and culture.” Xi rejected U.S. efforts to force China to exert unilateral pressure on Russia and called on all countries to support Russia and Ukraine in conducting fruitful negotiations and dialogue that might lead to peace. He also called on the United States to enter into a dialogue with Russia in order to address the core issues of the Ukraine crisis and alleviate the security concerns of both Russia and Ukraine.
Statements made by Chinese officials beyond the scope of the dialogue with the Americans are far more critical of Washington. For instance, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on March 17 that the U.S. Government’s decision to expand NATO to the east is directly related to the current crisis in Ukraine and that the key to resolving the situation lies in the hands of the United States and NATO. Two days earlier, he had called upon the United States to think deeply about its role in the development of the Ukraine crisis and to make a tangible effort to defuse the situation there. In a speech on March 19, Deputy Foreign Minister Le Yucheng made a similar argument, sharply criticizing the bloc mentality and very existence of NATO following the collapse of the USSR, as well as the unilateral sanctions imposed on Russia without any UN Security Council mandate, which he described as an attempt “to use globalisation as a weapon.” Speaking at a meeting of the UN Security Council on March 14, China’s representative, Zhang Jun, actually agreed with Russia’s argument, underlining the importance of the indivisibility of security and calling for the renunciation of Cold War thinking vis-à-vis the Ukraine crisis.