CHINA DID NOT want a Russian invasion of Ukraine and, ahead of Russia sending in troops, had distanced itself slightly from Moscow despite the agreement between Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin during the Beijing Winter Olympics reaffirming their ‘no limits’ partnership.
A shared antipathy to US foreign policies is one thing; going to war as allies is another. Historically, the relationship between Beijing and Moscow has blown hot and cold. Partly, that is because there has rarely been the parity of power that is one of the prerequisites for a strong security alliance. Today, China is far the stronger of the two. Nor is ‘my enemy’s enemy is my friend’ the true confluence of interests that is another prerequisite.
Beijing has not followed Moscow in recognising the Russian-backed separatist-held areas of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent. (It was not happy when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014.) It will be keen to avoid the diplomatic gymnastics necessary to avoid violating its oft-repeated principle that China does not interfere in the internal affairs of others and that other countries should not interfere in its internal affairs.
However, it will now face having to make realpolitik choices.
It is unlikely to endorse the invasion formally but equally unlikely to condemn it. Nor will it join international sanctions against Russia, arguing that sanctions are ineffective. In doing so, it is taking a swipe at US sanctions against China more than advancing an argument on first principles (not that that argument is not without foundation).
Moscow will undoubtedly look to Beijing for economic support to provide sanctions relief. That will mostly come from increased Chinese purchases of Russian gas, as already agreed via Gazprom’s newly signed second gas supply contract.
Beyond that, China will offer little more than rhetorical support. In November, the two countries signed a three-year military cooperation agreement for joint military exercises and patrols. However, the primary purpose is political, and military inter-operability is limited.
Of several joint exercises undertaken in 2021, most served to bolster Beijing’s display of force towards Japan and South Korea, neither country being a particular focus of Russian foreign policy concern. Tellingly, China did not reciprocate by participating in Russian exercises on its European borders.
If Putin thought he could expect China’s full-hearted support for an invasion of Ukraine, he misread Xi badly. China has distanced itself from the invasion, with officials stressing that Russia ‘is an independent major country, and it decides its policy and actions independently according to its own strategic judgment and interests’.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi has repeatedly made China’s usual milquetoast calls for restraint on all sides and for the situation to be resolved through dialogue. Yet his spokesperson — Hua Chunying, making an unexpected return to the podium to conduct the ministry’s routine press conference on February 23 despite her recent promotion of assistant minister — was typically pugnacious towards the United States:
A key question here is what role the US, the culprit of current tensions surrounding Ukraine, has played. If someone keeps pouring oil on the flame while accusing others of not doing their best to put out the fire, such kind of behaviour is clearly irresponsible and immoral.
She struck the same note the following day, following the start of the Russian military action. State media and social media, too, reinforce the narrative that the United States is responsible for the tensions in Ukraine. They are also dampening any discussion about Russia protecting or reincorporating minorities that could raise awkward questions inside China about the situations of many of its population.
Beijing will also be warry of nationalist voices that say Russia’s invasion of Ukraine provides a template for invading Taiwan. However, it will be calibrating the West’s response to Putin’s moves into Ukraine as a guide to how far it can continue to push against Taipei without getting significant international pushback.
Further complicating China’s position over Ukraine is its trade and investment interests along the Belt and Road, particularly in the former Soviet states of Central Asia. While it accepts Moscow’s security dominance there, it has sought to deploy its commercial power to establish its influence.
Ukraine is a way station along the Belt and Road’s routes to Europe. Last year, China signed an investment agreement with Ukraine, which it also hopes will become a source of food imports. China is already Ukraine’s largest trading partner.
War in Ukraine will set back Beijing’s efforts to drive a wedge between the EU and the United States over their strategic responses to China.