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China Must Navigate the Ukraine Crisis with Pragmatism and Integrity

Mar 23, 2022
  • Brian Wong

    DPhil in Politics candidate and Rhodes Scholar at Balliol College, Oxford

The Ukraine crisis is shaping up to be amongst the most monumental military conflict in the aftermath of World War 2. The harrowing scenes of devastation on the streets of Ukraine are a chilling reminder that war remains closer than ever – that peace, even if elusive, even if fragile, must be defended at all costs. 

China’s calls for pacifism and an eschewing of military violence are thus pertinent at large, and specifically in relation to the ongoing situation in Eastern Europe. On the surface, China seemingly faces a difficult double bind in relation to Ukraine. China has clear reasons to not want to distance itself from Russia, a counterpart in a relationship with “no limits, or “no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation” – though it should be noted that as with all sound bilateral relations, there should be mutual and reciprocal gains for both parties through cooperation, as opposed to unidirectional imposition of geopolitical and reputational demands. 

More broadly, Russia serves as a core component to China’s vision of a multipolar world order. For China to explicitly withdraw from, or to push proactively for military action against Russia, would be a political non-starter, incurring substantial credibility costs for China’s tethering to allies elsewhere. The potential to sabotage Beijing’s vision of empowering a potent counterbalance to what it construes as Western aggression in the region is also apparent. 

On the other hand, there exist growing pressures from Europe and America alike, for China to take a decided stance against Russia, to go above and beyond what could well be described as ‘surface neutrality,’ and to undertake dual roles – of mediating and peacekeeping, and pressurising both parties in the war (primarily Russia) to de-escalate and come to the negotiating table. There are plentiful reasons for which this path makes more relative sense – setting aside the age-old question of repairing Sino-American relations (the short-term prognosis of which looks somewhat grim, given the comprehensive escalation in antagonism across financial, civil-society, and geopolitical spheres), there remain two further considerations that China should be cognisant of: first, the potential repercussions and costs that it would incur, were it to alienate the European community through appearing to side steadfastly with Moscow; second, the fact that the contemporary Chinese foreign policy is founded upon a basis of respecting the sovereignty and political autonomy of internationally recognised states, amongst which Ukraine clearly counts. 

Thus a superficial dilemma is formed: if China were seen to back Russia, it would risk running into substantial impediments towards its efforts at greater financial opening-up, economic integration, and being viewed by its European allies and the United States as a “responsible stakeholder.” If China were seen to push back against Russia, this would potentially incur the wrath of the Kremlin, as well as thwart its wishes of preserving the existing Russian government as a key strategic partner. 

Yet this is a false dichotomy. Indeed, there exist two options independent of these two – one of which has indeed been experimented with and partially adopted by Beijing, and the other of which constitutes a plausible, practicable path forward. I suggest here that a shift towards the latter of the following options, could well be in the interest of all parties involved – China, Ukraine, Europe, Russia, and the United States. 

The first option, which I term proactive ambiguity, is to resort to projected neutrality and calls for peace talks and negotiations. Such a position derives its strength from both China’s targeted inaction (e.g. in not offering arms to Russia; in not supporting Ukraine; in not pushing for more military escalation and United Nations peacekeeping missions) and targeted statements (e.g. the carefully minced words describing the ongoing conflict, the rhetorical push for de-escalation through multilateral talks involving all parties, and an adamant adherence to principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty). It is expected that these two components would come together in fostering a delicate balance – one that allows China to do everything by not doing anything, so to speak. 

The trouble with this strategy is that it places China – ironically – on a set of slipping slopes, where it must continually devise new explanations and patch together reactions towards the rapidly changing circumstances on the ground. It takes agency away from Beijing and places it in the hands of those locked in military confrontations over the skies and streets of Kyiv, Lviv, Odessa, Kharkiv, and beyond. There is very little, in this scenario, that China could in fact control – or come to ‘own’ via its own political agency. 

An alternative path, then, constitutes what I would term proactive pacificism. In lieu of coming out for or against Russia or NATO, the two ‘sides’ ostensibly locked at loggerheads, the focus of China’s advocacy ought to be recentralised – unambiguously and explicitly – around the lives of Ukrainian citizens, and livelihoods of innocent Russian citizens afflicted by the un-targeted sanctions. China need not officially condemn the violence, but it must demonstrate resolve and willingness to work together with receptive allies and partners, including the European Union and – if possible – the United States, in brokering ceasefire, pressing for enforcement and upholding of humanitarian corridors, and supporting de-escalation in cities that are most jeopardised by the ongoing crisis. The concern that it would be seen as capitulating, or failing to support its ally, could be easily ameliorated with precise messaging that explains where lines must be drawn when it comes to the expression of “security concerns” – a full-blown war is neither proportionate nor productive in addressing such worries. 

In line with such pacifism would be China’s calls for an end to indiscriminate sanctions that leave ordinary Russian civilians – who have little to do with the decision-making processes at the highest echelons of Russian politics – substantially worse-off; it would also cohere with China’s ongoing efforts at delivering humanitarian and medical aid to Ukraine – a drive that has been overlooked in much of the commentary and critique of China’s actions. China should seek to comply with regulations that serve as prerequisites for its access to international capital markets – if not for the normative grounds in doing so, then at least because it is in its interest to assuage the worries of foreign investors and firms that China might, too, become ensnared in the complex sanction regimes imposed thus far. 

There remains an age-old query within segments of the Chinese discourse and media – that to commit to mediating and upholding peace would be akin to turning a blind eye to what many view as Western hypocrisy or double standards. Yet it is imperative that these two questions are kept separate from one another – any responsible international actor’s devotion to peace should not be contingent upon the attitudes and reactions of other parties. Multilateral talks between the European Union, Ukraine, and Russia, hosted by Beijing, could well prove to be a path out of what is seemingly an impossible and trenchantly difficult position.  

As global history comes to a crossroads, so, too, does Chinese diplomacy. From Beijing’s perspective, taking sides explicitly may well be unwise; opting for proactive ambiguity is equally untenable, however. A fourth path remains – and it is one that balances pragmatic considerations and concerns of integrity. I am hopeful that reason will prevail.  

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