Language : English 简体 繁體

Assessing China’s Ukraine Policy at Year Three

Apr 05, 2024

As with many foreign policy issues, China has several potentially competing interests at play in the Ukraine War. On the one hand, Beijing gains from Russia absorbing Western attention and resources that might otherwise flow to the Asia-Pacific region to counterbalance China. PRC diplomats have also adopted a public stance of benign neutrality to project a positive international image. Furthermore, the war has brought China commercial opportunities. 

Looking farther ahead, a Russian victory in Ukraine might weaken the credibility of U.S.-led defense alliances in the Indo-Pacific and other regions. PRC information sources echo Russian claims that NATO’s enlargement helped precipitate the Ukraine war. They also assert that the growth in U.S.-led military blocs in Asia, such as the Japan-ROK-U.S. alliance or the Australia-United Kingdom-United States (AUKUS) partnership, could have comparatively negative impacts in Asia. 

On the other hand, the Ukraine War has harmed China’s image in the West due to Beijing’s perceived tolerance for Russian aggression and the extensive diplomatic and economic support China provides Russia. The conflict has paralyzed the Arctic Council, which had been the main instrument through which China was pursuing multilateral diplomacy in the Arctic to complement its deepening economic ties with Russia in the region. Furthermore, the unanticipated intensity of the Russian onslaught against Ukraine has led Western governments to fear that China might launch a similar full-scale attack against Taiwan despite the potential costs and risks of such a war. 

The Chinese government has also warned of the dangers of nuclear escalation in Ukraine, including from the deliberate use of nuclear weapons or from inadvertent damage to Ukraine’s nuclear power plants, which have intermittently been engulfed in fighting. At worst, a Russian defeat would weaken China’s most important foreign military partner, challenge the narrative of Western decline, decrease PRC opportunities to benefit from Ukraine’s economic reconstruction, risk Putin’s removal and replacement by a less pro-Beijing regime, and permit the Western democracies to concentrate more resources against China. 

PRC officials have neither publicly criticized Russian actions nor exploited their leverage to compel Moscow to cease fighting. The Foreign Ministry white paper released in February 2023, “China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis,” affirms unobjectionable general principles but lacks details or implementable actions. The principles include upholding international law and states’ independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity; opposing nuclear weapons use or threats; and protecting grain exports, supply chains, and the international economy. In practice, the position paper tilts toward Moscow by opposing “expanding military blocs,” a “Cold War mentality,” or national sanctions not approved by the UN Security Council, where China enjoys veto power. The text also refrains from terming the Russian-Ukraine conflict a war, demanding the return of occupied territories, or calling for punishment of war crimes.

Chinese diplomatic engagement regarding the Ukraine war has been similarly imbalanced. The PRC delegation to the United Nations typically abstains on votes critical of the Russian invasion. Special Representative for Eurasian Affairs Li Hui regularly travels to Russia, Ukraine, and other countries to defend China’s position on the war. Though the PRC government declined to participate in the first international peace conference on Ukraine, hosted by Copenhagen in June 2023, or the third peace summit in Malta in October 2023, they did attend the second Ukraine peace summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, in August. They then briefed the Russian government, which was not invited to any of these conferences, on the results of its closed sessions. When PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi met Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in February 2024, Wang insisted that China sought to bring the war to a rapid conclusion and “does not take any advantage of the situation and does not sell lethal weapons to conflict areas or parties to the conflict.”

Thus far, China has suffered only modest U.S. sanctions for its Ukraine policy. In early 2023, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Vice President Kamala Harris, CIA Director William J. Burns, and other senior U.S. officials repeatedly claimed that they had intelligence suggesting the Chinese government was considering rendering non-lethal aid to Russia. During her speech at the February 2023 Munich Security Conference, Harris cautioned that, “Any steps by China to provide lethal support to Russia would only reward aggression, continue the killing and further undermine a rules-based order.” Blinken told the conference that, “We've made clear to our Chinese counterparts … that we would view any provision of military assistance or evading sanctions as a very serious problem.” 

But these concerns became less evident as the Chinese government avoided the U.S. “red line” of providing lethal weapons to the Russian armed forces. Even so, China has provided considerable economic and diplomatic assistance that fortified Russia against Western sanctions and other pressure. This help has included non-lethal items like helmets and body armor, as well as dual-use goods like drones, thermal imagery, and high-precision optical equipment. China has also not adhered to the Western price caps on Russian oil sales. And some PRC entities have gone even further. In December 2023, the U.S. Department of Treasury sanctioned several Chinese entities for helping Russia obtain Chinese and other foreign defense technologies, including advanced electronic components, high-resolution satellite imagery, and high-tech equipment and machine tools. 

Russian officials may privately recognize the long-term dangers of overdependence on the Chinese economy. As long as the war continues, though, Moscow lacks an alternative great power partner. Meanwhile, the United States cannot readily inflict enough punishment or offer sufficient inducement to induce Beijing to alter its stance.

You might also like
Back to Top