- Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s relationship with Russia has come under intense scrutiny. China’s silence on the issue reflects an implicit support for Putin, but at the same time a clear refusal to become implicated in a messy and protracted war.
- Despite expectations that China will eventually “make up its mind”, the leadership is very unlikely to either explicitly condemn or support Russia’s actions. Instead, we should look for gradual recalibrations in China’s diplomatic position which seek to manage its exposure to risk.
- China’s response to Ukraine reiterates that it values the ability to retain a selective relationship with the current international order above all else – including the “no limits” Sino-Russian partnership.
Four months since the invasion of Ukraine began, there is still an ongoing discussion in policy circles about which camp China will fall into and what actions it will take to publicly clarify its relationship with Russia. Many cite President Xi Jinping’s joint statement with Putin on 4 February as tacit approval of Russia’s invasion. Others, such as hopeful Western governments, are waiting to see if China will denounce Russia and diplomatically or economically intervene to prevent further bloodshed.
But China will not join a “coalition of opposition to Russia” – and, unfortunately, for policymakers to entertain this idea is to add fuel to Russia and China’s claims that NATO is the real aggressor in this conflict. Instead, they should begin to consider realistic approaches to the China-Russia partnership and its relationship to the war in Ukraine. To do so it is important to understand China’s position and the interests which underpin it.
All signs point towards China staunchly maintaining its public position on the invasion. This position consists of three components: firstly, declaring that the US has been meddling in the European security architecture for many years, that it harbours a “real motive of benefiting from the crisis”, and that the US and NATO therefore bear responsibility for violence in Ukraine. Secondly, when raising concerns about specific acts of Russian aggression, such as casualties to Chinese citizens stranded in Ukraine, or the mass killing of Ukrainian civilians in Bucha, calling on all “relevant parties” to “exercise restraint”. Thirdly, highlighting that Ukraine is in no way comparable to Taiwan, which is strictly an “internal issue”. In combination, these statements form an intentionally ambiguous public position.
China’s pro-Russia apathy
China is very unlikely to publicly criticise Russian actions – to do so would be to call into question the efforts made over the past decade to elevate the Sino-Russian friendship to new heights, culminating in the joint statement made on 4 February. Yet to explicitly condone the Russian invasion would damage China’s oft-declared foreign policy principles of non-interference and non-intervention in other sovereign countries. It would also tie Xi Jinping to Putin’s growing list of strategic miscalculations, implying that Beijing’s support has encouraged Russia’s decision to execute a deadly and protracted invasion of Ukraine.
Either way, China’s leadership would be forced to admit a degree of culpability for serious mistakes made – and this is politically unfeasible in a year where Xi Jinping looks to consolidate his leadership in advance of the 20th Party Congress. The dramatic fall-out from China’s Zero-COVID policy over the past several months is an example of how Xi Jinping is now unable to U-turn on (flawed) policies which he has already publicly stood behind, however dire the consequences might be. China’s pro-Russia apathy is thus here to stay.
Despite this, over the past four months China has displayed a general disdain for the war (or at least the way the war has been executed), the consequences of which it was clearly not prepared for. The first sign of this was Wang Yi’s statement expounding China’s “five point position” in late February: “China maintains that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries should be respected and protected and the purposes and principles of the UN Charter abided by in real earnest. This position of China is consistent and clear-cut, and applies equally to the Ukraine issue… The current situation is not what we want to see.”
Then on 1 March Wang held a phone call with Ukraine’s foreign minister in which he said “China is deeply grieved to see the conflict between Ukraine and Russia and highly concerned about the damage done to civilians.” At this point, 3,000 Chinese civilians were estimated to be stuck in Ukraine, with some suffering casualties, partly due to poor and inconsistent advice provided by the Chinese embassy. On 15 March, China’s Ambassador to the US Qin Gang was even more explicit in an opinion piece for the Washington Post: “had China known about the imminent crisis, we would have tried our best to prevent it.”
There also appears to be a diversity of opinions within China on the value of the Sino-Russian partnership. In March five senior Chinese academics published an open letter criticising Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: “We strongly opposed Russia’s war against Ukraine. Russia’s invasion of a sovereign state by force… is a violation of the norms of international relations based on the United Nations charter and a breach of the existing international security system.”
And in May China’s former ambassador to Ukraine Gao Yusheng commented that “it’s only a matter of time before Russia is fully defeated.” There is nothing to suggest either the academics or Gao’s opinions form part of a school of thought that is feeding into China’s current strategy towards Russia – indeed, both comments were censored on China’s internet just hours after they were published. But these challenge the notion that there is widespread and unanimous public support for Russia in China, even if China’s strict media environment may give this impression.
Solid as a rock
At the same time, China’s government has not sought to stymie its relationship with Russia in any obvious way. China has increased its purchase of Russian oil and gas at discount rates. May figures reveal that Chinese crude oil imports grew 55% year on year, and LNG increased by 54%. Total Chinese imports from Russia grew by 80%. And China and Russia conducted “joint air patrols” over the Sea of Japan on 24 May, flying two Chinese H-6 bombers alongside four Russian military planes whilst President Biden was in the region attending a Quad leaders meeting. Clearly there is a willingness to use the Sino-Russian partnership as leverage over issues that pertain to China’s regional security.
Most recently, a phone call between Putin and Xi on 15 June (Xi’s birthday) was the most profound reaffirmation of the China-Russia partnership since the 4 February joint statement and since the invasion began. Both the Chinese and Russian transcripts of the phone call described a commitment to deepening bilateral and multilateral cooperation, based on a foundation of shared interests regarding international law and order.
Notably, the Russian transcript of the conversation reads “the President of China noted the legitimacy of Russia’s actions to protect fundamental national interests in the face of challenges to its security created by external forces.” China’s transcript does not mention Xi’s support for Russia’s “actions” in Ukraine, instead providing the more consistent (and muted) line that “China has always independently assessed the situation on the basis of the historical context and the merits of the issue… all parties should push for a proper settlement of the Ukraine crisis in a responsible manner”. This discrepancy indicates that, unsurprisingly, Russia holds different expectations of the extent of the no-limits partnership and the support that this should elicit.
Nonetheless, China’s diplomats have not held back in mounting scathing attacks of the United States for its role in the “Ukraine crisis”. Over the past several months China’s public messaging has been strongly critical of NATO expansion, which its leaders see as a parallel to the threat faced by China in the Asia-Pacific region. Foreign vice-minister Le Yucheng commented in March that “The Ukraine crisis provides a mirror for us to observe the situation in the Asia-Pacific. We cannot but ask, how can we prevent a crisis like this from happening in the Asia-Pacific?”. This is a reminder that a key tie binding China and Russia together is a common antipathy towards the United States and a shared threat perception towards the expansion of US alliance systems.
But it is worth noting that their shared contempt for the US does not equate to shared ambitions for the future of Ukraine, nor for the future of international order, and in this way analogising between China and Russia can only go so far. After all, China and Russia have different positions within and relationships with the current international order and global economic system. For the past two decades, China has taken advantage of the liberal world order to emerge as a neo-mercantilist economic power. Selective economic integration and China’s emergence as a production and trading hub has enabled China’s material rise. Russia, by contrast, is often considered a minority stakeholder in globalisation.
The reason why Beijing has not explicitly come out against Russia is structural: even if China were to support the West in Ukraine, this would unlikely change US and NATO policy towards China in the long-term. Beijing likely knows that even were they to support Washington against Russia, once the situation in Ukraine stabilises, US and NATO policy would still focus on China as the main competitor.
Some are beginning to recognise and utilise these nuances in the China-Russia partnership. President Volodymyr Zelensky has indicated that Ukraine is “satisfied with this status quo”. During a video link to the Davos Ukrainian Breakfast in May, Zelensky is reported to have said “China has chosen the policy of staying away. At the moment, Ukraine is satisfied with this policy. It is better than helping the Russian Federation in any case”.
All of this should be kept in mind as we monitor and evaluate the shape of the Sino-Russian relationship. Fragments of information continue to be read as indicating Beijing’s decisive alignment with Russia on the issue of Ukraine – such as Russia’s request for military assistance from China, the Wang-Lavrov meeting in Beijing on 30 March or reports of a Chinese government cyberattack against Ukraine. Equally, some see leadership movements in Beijing – such as the demotion of pro-Russia Le Yucheng – as an agenda in Zhongnanhai to disengage from Russia.
But China is unlikely to make any sudden, radical or explicit shifts in its alignment with Russia, given that the last time it did so, issuing the 4 February joint statement, Russia put China in an uncomfortable position. Instead, we are likely to see subtle recalibrations in China’s diplomatic position which seek to mitigate its exposure to risk. See for example Qin Gang’s interview with Phoenix TV on 24 March in which he qualified the no limits partnership: “China and Russia’s cooperation has no forbidden areas, but it does have a bottom line”.
Beyond the overarching narrative that Beijing has set up – that the Sino-Russian relationship is “solid as a rock” and that NATO’s “cold war mentality” is the cause of all human suffering in Ukraine – observers should keep track of micro indicators which might suggest gradual changes over time in China’s strategic commitment to Russia.
China’s response to Russia’s occupation of territory in Georgia in 2008 may offer a (cautious) guide to China’s positioning today. Much of China’s current diplomatic language over Ukraine is consistent with the public statements made in 2008: “all relevant parties” should find a “peaceful solution”. Fourteen years later, Beijing has still not recognised the breakaway regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and has effectively maintained a business-as-usual approach in its bilateral relationship with Georgia, attempting to integrate it into the BRI. The vastly different international contexts should of course keep comparisons between the two situations limited.
We should also look to understand what kind of lessons Beijing might be taking from this crisis for its own global power ambitions in relation to the existing international order. In the first days following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many expected China to seize the opportunity to roll out a grand vision of its preferred international relations. The 4 February joint statement and a piece in the National Interest by the Chinese and American ambassadors to the US on 26 November fuelled these expectations. A strident Sino-Russian alliance would supposedly be the cornerstone of Xi Jinping’s “New Era”, eschewing liberal institutions and values once and for all.
However, China’s largely indifferent response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine indicates that – as certain academics have predicted – it instead intends to continue to “cherry-pick” the parts of the current international order that work in its favour in the near- to medium-term future. As Bobo Lo writes, “China seeks to game the system; not to destroy it.” On certain issues – such as territorial expansion in the South China Sea – China actively challenges and undermines international norms. But China’s leaders are not looking to exploit cracks that have the potential to propagate and shatter a liberal world order, as this would potentially deprive China of crucial benefits at a time when the promise of continued economic growth is coming into question; chiefly its access to foreign markets, should Russia-style sanctions be applied to China. Even if enforcing sanctions against China and walking away with bearable economic costs is much harder for the West than in the case of Russia at the moment, Beijing and Chinese companies will certainly be wary of exposure to secondary sanctions.
Clearly much value has been placed on China’s ability to retain flexibility in its relationship with liberal order in the future. This in part explains why China’s diplomats do not want Taiwan to be seen through the lens of Ukraine by international audiences (even if its own policymakers are likely taking notes). Although some would argue this strategy is unsustainable, historically China has shown a remarkable capacity to maintain contradictions in its foreign policies.
In other words, at no point has China been willing to put itself out front and pass a figurative “point-of-no-return” in which its relationship with the existing international order has been left in ruins in the same way which Russia has done. This should guide us in rethinking questions such as whether China is a status quo or a revisionist power, whether China is order-breaking or order-upholding, whether China seeks to promote order or sow disorder. Ukraine reiterates that these questions have become rather outdated. Instead of a battle of orders, we should expect contestation over the specific rules and norms of order to take place in the coming years.
This is part one of a two-part series on the implications of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for China. The economic and military implications are examined in part two.
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the China Foresight Forum, LSE IDEAS, nor The London School of Economics and Political Science.
The blog image, “The President of Russia arrived in China on a state visit“, is licensed under CC BY 3.0.