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Foreign Policy

China and the Ukraine War: Navigating a Difficult Position

Mar 30, 2022
  • David Shambaugh

    Gaston Sigur Professor of Asian Studies and Director of the China Policy Program, George Washington University

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Russia’s and President Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression against the sovereign state of Ukraine has left China in a series of very sensitive and difficult positions. Beijing, and China’s leader Xi Jinping, are having to juggle and navigate a series of different interests: vis-à-vis Moscow and Putin; vis-à-vis Europe, NATO, and the West; vis-à-vis the United States; vis-à-vis Ukraine; and with China’s own domestic populace. None of these have been easy for the government in Beijing. Let us examine each in turn. 

With regard to Putin and Russia itself, it may never be known exactly what Putin told Xi Jinping of his war plans when they met in Beijing on the eve of the winter Olympic Games, but it is safe to surmise that Putin provided some indications of them. To not have done so would hardly have been consistent with the “rock solid” China-Russia relationship and “best bosom friend” personal relationship that Xi claims to have with Putin. The two leaders signed an extraordinary Joint Statement of more than 5000 words on February 4, 2022, when they met in Beijing. 

This expansive document stunned many observers. It indicated that there are “no limits” to the “friendship” and “no ‘forbidden areas’ of cooperation.” Overall, the Joint Statement was offered an extensive laundry list of the two governments’ grievances against the West, the United States, and what they jointly perceive to be an “unjust” world order. The Chinese side explicitly endorsed Putin’s critique of NATO and its post-Cold War eastward expansion in Central Europe, while the Russian side affirmed its opposition to “any forms of independence of Taiwan.” The joint document—which has been interpreted by some observers as a manifesto for a multifaceted offensive against the West—is the culmination of three decades of growing China-Russia relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union. In its essence, it is an ideological blueprint to counter the United States and its democratic allies around the world. 

When Xi and Putin met in Beijing, they also signed contracts for China to purchase $117.5 billion in oil and gas from Russia. This comes on top of bilateral trade which more than doubled from $64 billion in 2015 to $146.9 billion in 2021. 

But Putin’s brazen and brutal military invasion of Ukraine has put President Xi and China in a very difficult position with its Russian partners. Since the aggression began more than a month ago, Beijing has still not condemned it publicly. To not do so specifically is seen as clear signs of Beijing’s complicity, support, and enabling of the aggression. Instead, various Chinese officials and spokespersons have engaged in verbal somersaults with tortured terminology claiming fidelity to its own longstanding and cherished five principles of peaceful coexistence, while calling for a cessation of hostilities, provision of humanitarian relief—but an unwillingness to condemn Putin’s war outright. There remains a prevailing view throughout the world that to not condemn the aggression is to support it. China was one of 35 nations to abstain from the United Nations condemnation of the Russian aggression (141 of 193 countries voted in favor while 5 opposed the March 2 Resolution). On March 16 Russia and China were the only two members of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to vote against a similar ruling to immediately "suspend military action” against Ukraine. 

Beijing’s implicit support for Moscow has been a serious source of concern to the United States, to Europe, to NATO, and the West generally. To make matters worse, American intelligence has picked up credible indications that Moscow has requested both military support and financial relief from Beijing. The U.S. Government, and President Biden personally, have warned Xi Jinping and China of “serious consequences” should either be provided to Russia. 

No matter the outcome of the Ukraine crisis, Beijing’s credibility and reputation in both the United States and Europe, as well as among allies in Canada and throughout Asia, have already been seriously damaged. The U.S.-China relationship was severely strained before the war erupted, now it is even worse. Europe’s collective approach to China had also been hardening over recent months, now it too is much more wary of China. The transatlantic alliance has been significantly restrengthened as a result of Russia’s aggression—and closer coordination of U.S.-European policies towards China will also be a lasting byproduct. China has played its hand badly so far and Beijing can anticipate further difficulties ahead. One specific consequence is the likely death of the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), which has been in limbo for more than a year but already made moribund by Beijing’s sanctioning of EU parliamentarians and civil society actors. 

Aside from the global geopolitical consequences, Beijing’s interests in Ukraine have also been damaged by the war. At least four Chinese students were killed in their university dormitory in Kharkiv on March 4, and hundreds more Chinese citizens remain vulnerable inside the country. China became Ukraine’s biggest trading partner in 2019, with an estimated $20 billion in two-way trade in 2021. China has a variety of large investment projects in the country, many linked to its Belt & Road Initiative (BRI). China has a considerable amount to lose financially from the conflict—although it is assumed that it could potentially have much to gain from the post-conflict reconstruction. But that depends entirely on the war’s outcome and the Ukrainian government’s post-conflict attitude towards Beijing. 

Finally, Beijing’s various binds also affect its own domestic public. To date, Beijing’s controlled media have parroted Moscow’s state propaganda, with few Chinese knowing the real situation in Ukraine. They do not know about the substantial resistance that Ukrainians are putting up against Russian forces, they do not know the military difficulties and deaths Russian forces have encountered, and they do not know of the horrific scorched-earth bombing against cities and civilian targets. And they do not know the degree of support China’s government provides to Russia. All of this ignorance has fed the pro-Russian and anti-Western narratives inside of China. 

None of this bodes well for Beijing. China could wind up suffering significant collateral damage from the war. Its reputation has already suffered a lot. The question, still to be determined, is how much more damage will Xi Jinping’s China suffer from its “Comprehensive Strategic Partnership of Coordination for a New Era” with the Putin regime?

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