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Russia-Ukraine Conflict

Where does China stand on the Russia-Ukraine conflict?

Print edition : Jun 18, 2022 T+T-

Where does China stand on the Russia-Ukraine conflict?

Russian President Vladimir Putin with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on February 4, the day the Beijing Winter Olympics was inaugurated. They signed a joint statement for “a new era” and declared a “no limits partnership”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on February 4, the day the Beijing Winter Olympics was inaugurated. They signed a joint statement for “a new era” and declared a “no limits partnership”. | Photo Credit: Alexei Druzhinin

Despite China’s ostensibly neutral position on the Ukraine conflict, the slant towards Russia is evident even as it avoids an anti-Ukraine position. Many geopolitical imperatives drive this balancing act.

On February 23, 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin authorised his troops to undertake a “special military operation” across the border into Ukraine, thus starting the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The conflict, which was initially believed to be of limited scope, has now continued for over three months. Russia has taken control of the Moscow-aligned, ethnic Russian-rebel held areas of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, after failing to capture the capital Kyiv in an initial push.

In response, the US and the EU have piled incremental sanctions on Russia, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) has stopped just short of intervention. As the conflict drags on, casualties have risen, and the economic impacts are being felt around the world. The international community remains divided in its understanding and outlook on the ethical, legal, and political dimensions of the conflict, its causes, and its implications.

China, which shares a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era”, has adopted a relatively restrained stance on the conflict, and the nature and reasoning of its stance is still being deciphered across the world.

The Chinese position

China’s response to the conflict has been more or less consistent, although characterised by ambiguous rhetoric and cautious action. China has shied away not only from calling Russia’s actions on Ukraine an invasion, but also from blaming Russia for the conflict. It has tried to negate Western allegations that China had already been informed by Russia about its military actions at the planning stage. China has focussed instead on highlighting the “complex background” of the crisis, advocating “restraint” from “all sides”, and has asked for a peaceful political solution through diplomatic negotiations. Beijing also categorised its stance as based on the principles of the UN Charter, evaluated with “objective and impartial attitude” on the basis of the “merits of the issue”. China’s responses, however, cannot be fully understood as passive or defensive in orientation.

Chinese president Xi Jinping delivers a speech via video link to the opening ceremony of the Bo’ao Forum For Asia.
Chinese president Xi Jinping delivers a speech via video link to the opening ceremony of the Bo’ao Forum For Asia. | Photo Credit: Huang Jingwen/Xinhua via AP

In the wake of the conflict, Beijing presented to the world its new outlook on international security, the most important of which is the Global Security Initiative (GSI), announced by China’s President Xi Jinping during his speech to the Boao Forum for Asia in March. It focussed on aspects such as sovereignty, non-interference and, more importantly, indivisible security, i.e., not seeking one’s own security at the expense of others’ security.

Though the larger context for the GSI is to provide a counter to the US-led Indo-Pacific security narrative, the specific component of indivisible security has been taken from the Eastern European context. Beijing also came up with its “five-point position” on the Ukraine issue, as well as a “six-point initiative” for preventing a humanitarian crisis in Ukraine. China has also been proactive in echoing accusations raised by Russia against the West, including that of the US running a bioweapons programme in Ukraine. It has also conveyed suspicions about Western claims that Russia targeted Ukrainian civilians, such as in the alleged massacre at Bucha.

China has tried to paint its stance on the conflict in the colours of objectivity, neutrality, and independence. The past three months, however, show that China is in effect slanted towards Russia while appearing to stand on the middle ground. A distinct pattern can be seen in China’s responses from the beginning of the conflict, despite its vague and muddled appearance. China’s emphasis on sovereignty and territorial integrity can be interpreted as a veiled reference to a violation by Russia of the principles of the UN Charter. However, when China says it advocates “common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security” and the “legitimate security concerns of all countries”, it is in fact referring to an almost existential security challenge posed to Russia by the NATO’s eastward expansion.

A Norwegian Navy Sailor aboard the Royal Norwegian Navy corvette Skjold stands lookout during an air defence drill at the Baltops 22 exercise in the Baltic Sea on June 6.
A Norwegian Navy Sailor aboard the Royal Norwegian Navy corvette Skjold stands lookout during an air defence drill at the Baltops 22 exercise in the Baltic Sea on June 6. | Photo Credit: REUTERS / Stoyan Nenov

In the United Nations, China has never voted against Russia on any of the resolutions; choosing mostly to abstain, except in the case of the General Assembly resolution in April to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council, which it voted against. China continues to trade with both Russia and Ukraine and has not attempted to significantly undermine Western sanctions against Russia, as per the US Department of State. However, while Xi Jinping has spoken with Russian, American and Western European leaders during the crisis, he has not yet spoken with the Ukrainian President. These demonstrate a limited degree of support to Russia amidst a professed neutrality, revealing the essence of Beijing’s stance.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of China’s position is its identification of the US-led West as the main instigator of a long-standing problem that has led to the present crisis. Although there is a level of ambiguity and balance in China’s response to the Ukraine-Russia bilateral dimension, there is absolute clarity in its interpretation of the conflict from a larger perspective. China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi has used the Chinese proverb, “It takes more than one cold day to freeze three feet of ice” to convey the message that the conflict is an inevitable culmination of rising tensions.

China has asserted that the West in general, and the US in particular, is squarely to be blamed for the fallout. According to Beijing, not only is the US responsible for the birth of the conflict, it is also responsible for its adverse impact worldwide. In this context, China has pointedly slammed the use of sanctions against Russia and the supply of arms to Ukraine as adding fuel to the fire. Its Foreign Ministry has said that sanctions have “aggravated the food crisis and financial difficulties in developing countries and inflicted even more hardships on the people” at a time when the world is struggling to recover from the pandemic. As for Western accusations of Beijing’s support to Moscow, China argues that while the West is arming Ukraine, Beijing is providing humanitarian assistance to Kyiv and facilitating de-escalation.

China’s geostrategic calculus

For China, Russia and Ukraine are both friendly countries, both significant constituents of the Soviet Union, Communist China’s ideological partner. Today, China is the largest trading partner for both nations; in fact, China displaced Russia in 2019 as Ukraine’s largest trading partner. Ukraine, and not the US, is China’s largest corn supplier and its third largest supplier of military equipment; China is Ukraine’s biggest market for defence goods.

China displaced Russia in 2019 as Ukraine’s largest trading partner. Here, an aerial view shows containers and cargo vessels at a port in Qingdao in China’s Shandong province.
China displaced Russia in 2019 as Ukraine’s largest trading partner. Here, an aerial view shows containers and cargo vessels at a port in Qingdao in China’s Shandong province. | Photo Credit: CHINA DAILY VIA REUTERS

The significance of Ukraine for China is not just quantitative but also qualitative. For instance, Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, is a refurbished Ukrainian model from the Soviet era. China is also a huge investor in Ukraine, building Europe’s largest wind farm and its third largest solar power array there. Kyiv has also been part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) since 2017. Ukraine’s growing ties with the European Union in the past two decades means that China will have to pay more attention to the nation.

China also has a political reason to be sensitive to Ukraine’s sovereignty being challenged by Russia in its ethnic minority-dominated border regions. China has ethnic minority regions at its peripheries, such as Tibet and Xinjiang, with high separatist tendencies. These centrifugal movements have historically been stirred by the predecessors of today’s Russia—Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. Moreover, Imperial Russia was among the six imperial powers that relegated the Chinese empire into semi-colonial existence during its “Century of Humiliation”. While these aspects explain why China has compelling reasons to not take an anti-Ukraine stance, explaining its pro-Russia bias needs the context of global geopolitics.

Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left) and China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi pose for a picture during a meeting in Guilin, China on March 22, 2021.
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left) and China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi pose for a picture during a meeting in Guilin, China on March 22, 2021. | Photo Credit: Russian Foreign Ministry VIA REUTERS

Historically, all major power rivalries have been between continental and maritime powers, where the former are not just located away from the sea but are also away from the social, economic, and political influences it brings in, today in the form of cosmopolitanism, market economy, and liberal democracy. Whether it is the Great Game of the 19th century, the Cold War of the 20th century, or Cold War 2.0 of the 21st century, rival powers essentially align along the continental-maritime axis. Today, continental Eurasian powers are in a tussle with maritime Indo-Pacific and Trans-Atlantic powers. This macro context explains China’s stance on Ukraine.

Russia and China aligned in the initial period of the Cold War and were picking up the pieces when the Cold War ended when it dawned on them that the US-led West was seeking to undermine their potential while simultaneously facilitating their transition from continental to maritime powers. With the arrival of the 21st century and the rise of American unilateralism, Russia and China started to resist what they saw as the US attempt to maintain and expand its hegemony globally, including in their home regions, and threatening their domestic political systems. Both nations started to revisit their continental roots, further deepening their divide with the West.

The relative decline of the West after the global financial crisis fuelled their confidence, and they started building the blocks of emerging multipolar orders such as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). At the regional level, they reasserted control through instruments such as China’s BRI and Russia’s Eurasian Economic Union. They also worked towards a joint sphere of influence in continental Eurasia with the establishment of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. They engaged in territorial aggression with their neighbours to reclaim what they argued had long been theirs—for instance, along the Sino-Indian border for China and Georgia (2008) and Crimea (2014) for Russia. Domestically, their economic and political systems were tightly controlled under Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping.

Here, sailors on board the USS Ross - an American ship under a NATO ballistic missile defence plan - leave the Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia.
Here, sailors on board the USS Ross - an American ship under a NATO ballistic missile defence plan - leave the Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia. | Photo Credit: SAMMY DALLAL / AP

At the level of strategy, they erected countermeasures to the American Ballistic Missile Defence system; at the military level they engaged in intense cooperation and joint training. Besides, they used their natural complementarities in supply and demand—Russia’s extensive natural resources and established heavy industry dovetailed with China’s high resource demand, large market size, and massive export capacity for finished goods.

With these measures, their relations with the West kept deteriorating. It is no surprise that on February 4, 2022, the day the Beijing Winter Olympics was inaugurated, Putin and Xi signed a joint statement for “a new era” and declared a “no limits partnership”. These evolving ties and larger geopolitical imperatives perhaps provide the overriding rationale for China’s less-than-neutral position.

Dr Anand V. is Assistant Professor at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education.