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Foreign Policy

Policy Analysis of Russia-Ukraine Conflict

May 17, 2024

Wang Yi Munich.jpg

Chinese Foreign Minister delivers a keynote address at the 2024 Munich Security Conference on February 17, 2024. TOBIAS HASE / DPA / dpa Picture-Alliance via AFP

The Russia-Ukraine conflict, now in its third year, is a subject of both global concern and controversy. The Western bloc has one-sidedly identified Russia as the aggressor and imposed all-around sanctions, while providing Ukraine with large-scale military and economic aid. China avoids discussing the matter as it stands, preferring to approach the conflict from a comprehensive historical perspective. The Chinese position is based on the idea that China is neither the creator of the conflict nor a party to it. Yet China has not played the role of detached onlooker nor taken advantage of the crisis for profit, unlike others.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi reiterated at this year’s Munich Security Conference that President Xi Jinping’s words are China’s authoritative position on the Ukraine issue, as well as its fundamental guidance. He has said that countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity should be respected, that the purposes and principles of the UN Charter should be observed, that countries’ reasonable security concerns should be given due attention and that all efforts toward a peaceful solution of the crisis should be supported.

China has insisted on promoting dialogue and working for a peaceful solution, playing a proactive role in promoting peace, and it will continue working so long as there still exists a ray of hope. The earlier that negotiations are restored, the less the warring parties will suffer. 

China’s responsible stance on the conflict is also evident in the management and control of nuclear risks. Xi said that nuclear weapons must not be used, that a nuclear war must be avoided and that all parties should work together to preserve the safety of nuclear materials and facilities.

China has honored the international commitments it has assumed. Wang noted that China is not a signatory to the Memorandum on Security Assurances signed in Budapest, but it has endorsed it in the form of a government statement. China’s nuclear policy is the most clearly defined and most advanced in all nuclear powers. It includes no first use of nuclear weapons and no use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states.

The Chinese position and role with respect to the conflict have to do with the characteristics of China-Russia relations. First, both countries respect each other’s reasonable needs on security, sovereignty and national unification, and both oppose the groundless expansion of NATO, whose expansion embodies Cold War thinking.

The Ukraine issue is generally scrutinized in this sort of cognitive framework in China. On one hand, the military approach that led to the escalation of the Russia-Ukraine conflict is obviously inconsistent with the principle of striving to resolve disputes in a peaceful manner, which China has always advocated. Nor is the practice of unilaterally changing the status quo of another country’s territory via so-called referendum acceptable.

Meanwhile, China hopes the international community, especially countries that are enthusiastic about sanctioning Russia, don’t resort to another set of standards when it comes to affairs concerning Chinese sovereignty, territorial integrity and national reunification.

Second, the Russia-Ukraine conflict is related to changes in the existing international order. China and Russia share some views in principle, but are not completely in sync on methods and rhythm. The Russian side is better at pursuing its strategic interests via disorder and chaos.

Both China and Russia staunchly support United Nations centrality for world peace and security governance, emphasizing equal rights for sovereign nations, calling for the abandonment of Cold War thinking and opposing provocation, escalation, confrontation and the triggering of conflicts (even wars) by forming and strengthening military blocs. Both sides denounce the wars the United States and U.S.-led NATO have launched since the end of the Cold War without UN authorization.

China has a set of proposals regarding reform of the current international order and is contributing its wisdom and solutions for making global governance more reasonable and effective. But it has never had the strategic impulse to redo it, which was fully illustrated in President Xi’s remarks during his San Francisco meeting with U.S. President Joe Biden. At the Valdai Discussion Club, the opinions of Chinese and Russian scholars were far from similar as to whether the present-day world is in disorder.

On the contrary, in the face of U.S. bullying and the cold shoulder it has been given, Russia wishes China would also openly challenge the U.S. without hesitation or fear of a head-on collision. The Russia-Ukraine conflict embodies such strategic logic. This strategic tradition was on full display as the Soviet Union played an overriding role on the European continent following two wars of self-defense — in 1812 and 1941— as well as in the more or less self-defensive rapid response actions and outcomes in 2008, 2014 and 2015.

Of course, Russia needed special strategic reserves, including scale of resources, geographical depth, intelligence support and techniques mixing diplomacy and hybrid warfare. For instance, after 2014, Russia took advantage of the Eastern Ukraine issue to check Ukraine. Then it used the brink-of-war threat to mount pressure on EU countries, exploiting the latter’s desperate need for natural gas to press EU members to take specific stances on sanctions against Russia, whose control of a big share of the European natural gas market provided a convenient handle.

There is no doubt that regardless how the Russia-Ukraine conflict ends, Russia’s ambition to remain a world power based and rooted in Europe will not change. Its fearless stance on matters concerning its core interests and its iron fist in preserving a safety zone on its periphery will not change.

Meanwhile, the China-Russia relationship is a stable and mutually beneficial new type of major-country relationship based on the two sides’ rational deliberations and historical experience in light of profound changes in the world order and formulated under the strategic guidance of both countries’ leaders. The wisdom of China’s major-country diplomacy is the rudder of China-Russia relations as well as the anchor that stabilizes relations with others, including the United States and European Union.

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