The role of China in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine

, by Afonso Morango

The role of China in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine
Image: The Presidential Press and Informations Office, Wikimedia Commons

How much longer will China remain on the sidelines of Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine? Is Beijing willing to condemn President Putin's revisionism and violation of the territorial integrity and sovereignty of an independent country? What are President Xi's long-term goals?

The end of the Cold War was never going to usher in perpetual peace. But this war in Ukraine is giving new form to the possibilities for future conflict and ways in which it may be averted. ⁠ The war’s reverberations sound most strongly in Europe and this Russian invasion has upended the idea of a continent “whole, free and at peace”. Meanwhile China and Russia have undoubtedly been moving closer together both strategically and, as Vladimir Putin pushes Russia deeper into dictatorship, politically. ⁠ The war in Ukraine could usher in a new era of geopolitics and there´s been a lot of speculation abut how China will respond.

And, despite the “friendly” relation between Putin and Xi Jimping, the Chinese Communist Party will not be particularly keen for a full-on war in Europe. Since the beginning of Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine, China has largely stayed on the sidelines. But Beijing’s recent criticism of Russian attacks on civilians in Ukraine may suggest a possible distancing from Moscow, but it is too early to draw conclusions.

Chinese thinkers developed strategic thought that placed a premium on victory through psychological advantage and preached the avoidance of direct conflict – Henry Kissinger

In the first place, China stated that territorial sovereignty of all countries, including Ukraine, should be respected. Point two states that, in the face of NATO´s eastward expansion, China considers Putin´s security concerns legitimate and asks both sides to give up on their “Cold War mentality”. Point three of the Chinese view of this conflict states that both sides should exercise restraint to prevent a large-scale humanitarian crisis.

In its point 4, the Chinese Foreign Minister encourages diplomacy and a peaceful settlement Ukraine, acknowledging the country´s complex History with Russia. For China, Ukraine should be a bridge between the East and the West implicitly advocating against Ukrainian membership of western organizations like NATO or the EU. In its last point, the Chinese Ministry for Foreign Affairs, states that the UN Security Council should play a crucial role in resolving this issue. Curiously, China opposes western sanctions, arguing that these penalties cause more problems than they solve.

Despite Chinese Foreign Minister Wang’s remarks indicating tacit Chinese support for Russia’s security interests, Beijing would probably prefer stability in Eastern Europe. The Asian nation has many trade links with Ukraine, via the Belt and Road Initiative, links that would be damaged. Beijing could support the Kremlin and offer it an economic lifeline. This option may incur political and economic costs if Beijing is subject to secondary sanctions as a result of such support. But China may be willing to pay this price in exchange for a weaker and more dependent neighbour.

China holds some of the cards that could end Putin’s current war of aggression on Ukraine. But it is unlikely to use them unless the costs of not doing so are very high. Beijing does not seem to want the responsibilities that come with being a global power and will continue the path that exclusively serves its national interest. As Europe’s strategic ambiguity towards Russia collapses, perhaps it is also time to recognise China for what it is. If Beijing chooses not to repudiate Putin’s war of aggression and help stop it, the EU must assume once and for all that China has finally become a systemic rival and act accordingly.

For now, China waits serenely and watches the United States from the other side, always with Taiwan in its sights. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will likely prompt Taiwan to further increase its defense spending and invest in bolstering deterrence, while raising the public’s threat perception. Events of the past week have demonstrated the risk of relying on abstract principles of international law without a deterrent force behind it to guarantee one’s security.

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