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China’s Position on the Russia-Ukraine War

Apr 26, 2022
  • Xiao Bin

    Deputy Secretary-general, Center for Shanghai Cooperation Organization Studies, Chinese Association of Social Sciences

The stance of China, a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a country in a partnership of all-around strategic cooperation with Russia, has drawn international attention since the start of the Russia-Ukraine war.

The United States and its Western allies wish China would adopt their position, but China has chosen a stance that conforms to its own interests: advocating respect for every country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity; abiding by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter; proposing peace, opposing war; adhering to a common, comprehensive, collaborative and sustainable security outlook; appealing for Russia-Ukraine negotiations; and advocating benevolence and good-neighborliness. Yet not all countries are satisfied with this.

When it comes to mediating the war, China, first of all, doesn’t have the kind of influence other countries may imagine. From the perspective of China-Russia relations alone, all-around strategic cooperation does not restrict Russian adventurism. Under the influence of the historical legacies of the Cold War and its desire to become the leader and center of Eurasia, Russia has strong motivation to develop relations with China and seeks to guide them in a direction consistent with its own strategic interests by means of various political norms and regulations. 

Second, Russia concealed information about the war. According to information available to me so far, the Russian leader didn’t reveal anything about his intentions during his visit to Beijing for the Winter Olympics. Even in his phone conversation with the Chinese leader on Feb. 25, Vladimir Putin only mentioned a “military operation” in eastern Ukraine, making no mention of any action beyond eastern Ukraine. This explains why Chinese expats and companies in Ukraine suffered different degrees of harm after the war broke out.

Third, it is impossible for China-Russia economic and trade cooperation and interdependence to become a diplomatic tool for bargaining with Russia. China is Russia’s No.1 trading partner, and Russia is China’s largest source of energy imports. Bilateral economic and trade cooperation is of critical significance to both parties. And with the Chinese economy under unprecedented downward pressure, stability of energy supplies is critical.

China’s position on the Russia-Ukraine war is influenced by multiple concurrent factors. In international politics, as long as any country is involved in international affairs it will face various unfathomable risks, and when it has to show its position to the international community, it usually combines the factors of facts and values, because the scope and orientation of each factor’s influence are contingent on the state of the others.

As to facts, in accordance with such international treaties — the UN Charter, Budapest Memorandum (December 1994), Joint Statement of the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China on the Twentieth Anniversary of the Treaty of Good Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation Between the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China (June 2019), and Joint Statement Between the Government of the People’s Republic of China and the Government of Ukraine on Further Deepening the China-Ukraine Strategic Partnership (December 2013) — the Russia-Ukraine war does not conform to China’s position of proposing peace and opposing war. China’s leader has emphasized this repeatedly in communications with the U.S. and European Union. Yet, owing to huge differences in concrete action, the U.S., EU and some other countries are dissatisfied with China’s position.

As is the case with other countries, facts are not the sole element behind China’s position. Values are also at work. Under the premise that the U.S. and its Western allies take China as a threat, dodging risks is a value factor that China must take into consideration in all its foreign policy moves. Thus the risk-dodging inclination takes on significant weight in the Chinese stance. The more the U.S. and its Western allies speak of a China threat, the less likely it will become for China to synchronize with them through concrete actions.

One thing is certain: In the absence of a significant turn in relations between China and the U.S. side, the latter will have deceasing willingness to maintain a partnership.

No matter how the Russia-Ukraine war ends, Russia will lose the space for strategic defense that it had formulated with NATO before the war. European hostility will solidify against it, and it will sink itself in a new cold war featuring extremely asymmetrical factors. Meanwhile, the post-Soviet space may fragment, and instability in the Eurasian regional order will increase.

An inspiration from the war for China is that no hegemon country can persist for long because the cost of preserving hegemony will exceed its economic, military, demographic and diplomatic resources. Facing hegemonic pressure from the global regime, China should choose a philosophy that is flexible. More important, it should become a major independent force for peace — a responsible stakeholder in the international economic system and a participant in preserving justice and fairness on the stage of international politics. 

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