The on-going Ukrainian conflict since late February this year has major implications for China as with many countries in the world today. At stake for China are its assiduously built narratives on its “peaceful rise”, Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), “community of common destiny”, “multipolarity” but also to its regional dominance efforts and relations with the United States, European Union and others. Already affected by the debilitating novel Coronavirus that spread from Wuhan in late 2019 to the rest of China and the world, the Ukrainian conflict exposed China’s vulnerabilities. China’s short-term positions and long-term goals seems to be at complete variance.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24 came in the immediate aftermath of the conclusion of the Beijing Winter Olympics, attended by President Vladimir Putin and others, but also to the joint statement between China and Russia a day earlier to the sports event that stated to “no limits” to their strategic partnership and cooperation. Further, recently on June 16, President Xi had a telephonic conversation with President Putin, where the former stated that both “continue supporting each other on their respective core interests concerning sovereignty and security, as well as on their major concerns, deepening their strategic coordination”. This has led to speculations about China’s prior knowledge and compliance in the Russian war efforts, although denied by Beijing.
Since then, China is at pains to explain its position as “neutral” and “independent” and as the war began to take a heavy toll, China appears to have been increasingly isolated at the regional and global level – a prospect not in tune with Deng Xiaoping’s injunctions a few decades ago. Beijing abstained from the United Nations and its bodies, the Security Council, General Assembly and Human Rights Council discussions and criticism of the Russian actions in Ukraine. China stated it is for dialogue among the warring parties, ceasefire and humanitarian relief measures, even though it took an anti-US position all along. However, none of Beijing’s painstaking efforts seems to be working in its favour.
China’s position is stated to be neutral but in fact closer to that of Russia in the “united front” evolved with Moscow since 2001 against the United States in the “multipolarity’ domain. Even while China is dependent on the US and its military allies on economic and technological assistance for China rise, Beijing had crafted a policy of opposing politically the US in conjunction with Russia since 2001. Following Russian Premier Primakov’s suggestion in the late 1990s for “multipolarity”, China jumped into forming an “united front” with Moscow. Both have opposed the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), were critical of the “coloured revolutions” as an imposition of one-set of political values on other countries, criticised the US formulation of “pre-emptive strike” strategy as unilateral in nature, and military action in Iraq and Afghanistan as violation of the UN Charter. China also expressed concerns on the US “pivot” and then “strategic rebalance” towards the Indo-Pacific region and strengthening of alliances as major challenge.
China had aligned with Russia on the NATO expansion theme since the beginning of the war in Ukraine. Beijing had questioned recently the very existence of the NATO after the Soviet disintegration. It had expressed concern on the NATO declaration at its 50th anniversary in 1999 on intervention in the internal affairs of other countries based on ethnic and religious issues and drew inferences to possibilities of such actions on Xinjiang and Tibet. It also expressed concern on NATO’s 70th anniversary declaration in London in December 2019 that China is an opportunity but also a challenge. Even though this “London Declaration” of the NATO mentioned its primary challenges emanating from Russia, terrorism, migration and cyber domains, for the first time it also stated: “We recognise that China’s growing influence and international policies present both opportunities and challenges that we need to address together as an alliance”. NATO chief General Jens Stoltenberg said that “we must find ways to encourage China to participate in arms control arrangements”. He also said the alliance needed to start taking “into account that China is coming closer to us.” He observed: “We see them in the Arctic, we see them in Africa, we see them investing heavily in European infrastructure and of course investing in cyberspace.” The NATO declaration also suggested to building “secure and resilient” telecommunications infrastructure in the light of China’s Huawei bidding for the 5G communications in Europe. Certain NATO members like Italy and Greece joining China’s BRI and the establishment of EU-17+1 or “Cooperation between China and Central and Eastern European Countries” posed concerns for the unity of the European Union members. China’s challenges were seen mainly in financial investments and technology, securing telecommunications infrastructure security including in the 5G; differences on some European countries joining China led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the BRI.
In June 2022, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea were invited to the NATO-G7 meetings. In this context, NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg stated that “China poses some challenges to our values, our interests, and our security”. Several Chinese analysts viewed this as posing challenge to China in the coming years. China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said that “NATO has already disrupted stability in Europe. It should not try to do the same to the Asia-Pacific and the whole world.”
However, on the other hand, during the Russian war on Ukraine, China’s discourse mainly touched upon how the NATO is divided by the US and on how it will be dissipated soon. Such rhetoric came from China without assuaging the feeling in the EU on China’s own actions in the European region. Despite the telephonic or virtual conversations that China’s President Xi Jinping conducted with Germany, France and other countries, EU members unity and solidarity in the NATO surprised China.
China’s stance on the war in Ukraine is undergoing a slow but definitive change. This is in the background of a number of domestic and external developments of China that it is concerned with. The war in Ukraine had threatened to unleash political factional struggles in the communist party as it is heading for its 20th national congress this November. For President Xi, who is seeking a third term at the party congress, Ukraine crisis poses challenges.
Secondly, Ukraine crisis is threatening to upset energy prices across the world, and with China as the largest energy guzzler in the world, the costs are exorbitantly high. Even though China had increased its energy imports from Russia, the overall “sustainability and affordability” of the energy conundrum pose concerns for China’s economy.
Thirdly, Russia-Ukraine spat is threatening to disrupt the food supply chains on which China is also heavily dependent. China did create food reserves at Dalian but the future is uncertain as inflation is increasing. Already China’s staple food – pork – is off the shelf for millions of Chinese and the discontent is spreading.
Fourthly, China is in the forefront of critiquing the debilitating western sanctions on Russia in the aftermath of the war on Ukraine. In the backdrop of the Trump Administration’s tariff-wars and restrictions on China’s telecommunications companies in the US market, the ominous signals are clear for Beijing. If China is the next candidate for attracting western sanctions, then the country’s economy, that already took a beating with Covid-19 supply chain disruptions and domestic policies of “common prosperity” restrictions on businesses, is expected to suffer lower than estimated growth rates. With unemployment rising in China, this is expected to create further challenges to the party-state.
These concerns are reflected in President Xi addressing the Bo’Ao Forum on April 25 when he said that as the Ukraine crisis escalates “geopolitical factors are encumbering global economic recovery and further disrupting the global development cause; developing countries are bearing the brunt of the effects”. Further, President Xi addressing the 14th BRICS business forum stated that the “Ukraine crisis has again sounded the alarm for humanity”. However, the BRICS joint statement the next day was mild in its tone, underlining the common minimum understanding between the five countries that form the grouping. For instance, on June 23, the 14th BRICS virtual summit meeting joint statement pointed out that “We support talks between Russia and Ukraine. We have also discussed our concerns over the humanitarian situation in and around Ukraine and expressed our support to efforts of the UN Secretary-General, UN Agencies and ICRC to provide humanitarian assistance.”
China had tried to communicate to the world its position on Ukraine in vain. On May 16, Yang Jiechi, the Politburo member and former foreign minister said – “We have stepped up our holistic approach to the Ukraine crisis, explained our clear policy stance based on the merits of the matter, played an independent and constructive role, proposed ways to resolve the crisis, put forward China’s initiative on preventing a humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, and debunked and rebutted the various wrongful rhetoric and unfounded accusations against China.” Further, commenting on the US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s statement, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said on April 22 that “China’s position on the Ukraine issue is above board, just, objective and beyond reproach”. No clarifications, however, were provided in this regard.
So far, China’s dominant narrative in the Ukraine crisis has revolved around two inter-related aspects—a critique of the US policies and that of the NATO expansion, with the latter seen as impacting on the Asian region in the near future. China’s position in this regard is contradictory and clumsy in nature. On the one hand, Beijing is dependent on the US and its allies for its own rise as discussed since Deng Xiaoping-Jimmy Carter interactions in 1979. On the other hand, China sees the US as a threat to its ambitions to dominate Asia. That is, China is involved in a major critique of the US despite enjoying warm relations under the G-2 format for long. By critiquing the US, China is also indirectly pursuing the “united front” with Russia, even though primarily Beijing’s efforts are to stave off any western sanctions on China.
The ire of China is directed against the US in the Ukraine crisis. In fact, Zhong Sheng, a pen name used by People’s Daily, criticised the US as the “initiator” of the Ukraine conflict but has not provided refuge to the Ukrainian refugees. For another commentator Ye Zhu, it is the US “instigation” of Ukraine that the conflict between Russia and Ukraine are to be traced. Chen Zi’s observations are similar – that the US “added further fuel for fire” by supplying arms to Ukraine. A commentator Gao Ge, writing in the People’s Daily on April 26, 2022 stated that Ukraine war is a result of the NATO expansion under the US “planning” and reflects to its creating “controllable chaos” and “the U.S. hegemony is the fuse for global instability and the U.S. is the largest perpetrator of turmoil in the world.” In another commentary on April 24, Gao castigated the US for profiting from the Ukraine war.
China’s analysts’ critique is also about the NATO/EU. According to Zhang Jian, Russia-Ukraine war had exposed the fragile security system of Europe. With innumerable problems surfacing since February this year, it would be hard for Europe to cope up with the situation, leading to its polarisation. Responding to British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’s criticism of China’s role in the Ukraine crisis, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin questioned “NATO has messed up Europe. Is it now trying to mess up the Asia-Pacific and even the world?” Zhang Jun, China’s permanent representative to the UN stated “Clinging to the anachronistic doctrine of security and keen to provoke bloc confrontations and create tensions in Europe and even the Asia Pacific region and the wider world, such practices as harmful to others as they are deleterious to the perpetrators themselves, and deserve nothing less than China’s firm opposition”. With Finland and Sweden approaching the NATO for membership, Chinese scholars termed this move as further threatening “the sustainable security of Europe”.
China’s criticism of the US/NATO is also rooted in recent history, specifically the Chinese remind the NATO of the Chinese Embassy bombing incident at Belgrade in 1999. However, this is a complex issue with reports of Chinese defence attaché’s office providing vital intelligence to the Yugoslavians in lieu of securing downed stealth bomber parts. China could have been more transparent on this issue to remove the cobwebs.
Opportunities & Challenges
Despite the overall negative and fragmented approaches of China on the Ukraine crisis, it also sees the situation providing an opportunity. China’s assessment, after the inability of Russia to clinch the matter quickly in Ukraine, is that it needs to strengthen its “narrative power” and provide something concrete to the global and regional communities. One of the major exercises that China conducted is to showcase its new “Global Security Initiative”. President Xi unveiled “Global Security Initiative” at Bo’Ao Forum on April 21 that possibly includes all that China has been dishing out on the security issues, viz., “common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security; respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, uphold non-interference in internal affairs, and respect the independent choices of development paths and social systems made by people in different countries; abiding by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, reject the Cold War mentality, oppose unilateralism, and say no to group politics and bloc confrontation; committed to taking the legitimate security concerns of all countries seriously; committed to peacefully resolving differences and disputes between countries through dialogue and consultation” and others.
Laudable these may be, Xi did not mention whether the principles of the UN Charter were violated in Ukraine or whether even after 15 rounds of Corps Commanders meeting to resolve “all friction points” in Aksai Chin-Ladakh region the post-Galwan situation is resolved peacefully and the sovereignty and territorial integrity of India is respected.
Despite these contradictions in statement and practice, China’s leaders have called their counterparts across the world – especially European leaders – to convince them of China’s “peaceful” intentions. China also expressed its willingness to mediate between warring states. President Xi spoke to the German Chancellor on May 11 to underline the close partnership between them and remind them of the business partnerships and inter-dependence. He also spoke to French President Macron on May 11 stressing both countries “independence” posture in foreign policies. As the French have been critical of some American policies, Xi possibly is extending the time-tested “united front” tactics. On May 13, foreign minister Wang Yi spoke to his Danish counterpart on the Ukrainian conflict underlining commercial links.
On the other hand, several challenges are posed for China in the wake of the Ukraine crisis. In addition to those enumerated above, China is seriously considering the negative fallout of the war on its image. Already due to Covid-19, a majority of the public opinion polls have expressed their negative perceptions of China where the virus originated. However, the most critical factor is that of the spillover effect of the sanctions on China. Liu Kun, China’s finance minister, speaking at the G-20 meeting stated that “China is against politicizing and weaponizing the global economy”. Another commentator Zhao Wenzai wrote in the People’s Daily that the US, by imposing sanctions on Russia, is practicing “financial terrorism” in Ukraine.
Finally, it is speculated that one of the major casualties of the Ukraine crisis domestically is possibly the demotion of Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng, a former ambassador to India. Le, who was tipped to replace foreign minister Wang Yi next March, was sent as a deputy overseeing radio and TV broadcasting agencies. It was reported that he was instrumental in ushering the “no limits” partnership with Russia in February. Earlier, Le Yucheng, addressing a think-tank forum meeting on May 7, criticised those who castigate China for the developments in Ukraine. Le said that the “no limits” statement in Sino-Russian joint statement is for the current and future scenarios.
Author Brief Bio: Prof. Srikanth Kondapalli is Dean of School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.