The Russia-Ukraine war, which broke out in February, is probably the most difficult international emergency that China has encountered in its diplomacy in recent years. The war tests not only the comprehensive strategic partnership between China and Russia but also China’s relations with the world. Its position has attracted much attention from the international community.
For the past 10 months or so, China has taken a position in favor of the peaceful settlement of the conflict. However, there was a process of change in getting to this point. On the day the war broke out, the Chinese and Russian foreign ministers spoke by phone. China’s attitude was to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries but also to understand the legitimate concerns of the Russian side on security issues. On Feb. 25, the Chinese and Russian leaders spoke about the war, and the Chinese leader made five points clear:
• China will make a decision on the merits of the issue.
• The Cold War mentality should be discarded; the legitimate security concerns of all countries should be valued and respected; a balanced, effective and sustainable European security mechanism should be established through negotiations.
• China supports both the Russian and Ukrainian sides in solving the problem through negotiations.
• China respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries and abides by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter.
• China advocates common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security and works to safeguard the international system with the United Nations at the core and the international order based on international law.
Recognizing the impact of the war on the international political and economic order and its negative influence on China’s national interests, China’s position changed slightly. In the telephone communication between the Chinese and Russian leaders in June, two main things were added to China’s position:
• China will make independent judgments and work to promote world peace and global economic stability; and
• China is ready to play its due role in promoting an appropriate solution to the Ukrainian crisis.
Under the influence of the domestic and foreign environment, China took a comprehensive and rational view of the Russia-Ukraine war. It was a time when Russia had been isolated by the international community as never before.
During the summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, in September this year, the leaders of China and Russia met for the first time after the outbreak of the war. China hoped that the Russian side would demonstrate the responsibility of a major country in the peaceful resolution of its relations with Ukraine.
The Chinese leader proposed: “In the face of the changes in the world, in the times and in history, China is ready to work together with the Russian side to take responsibility as major countries, to play a leading role and to inject stability and positive energy into a world undergoing both change and chaos.” The Russian leader responded: “We highly value the balanced position of our Chinese friends on the Ukrainian crisis. We understand your problems and concerns. In today’s talks we will explain our position.”
It is clear from the Russian leader’s response that China has little chance of changing Russia’s hard-line position. Some Russian scholars were dissatisfied with the Chinese position, arguing that China should be giving Russia more help. However, despite the huge international pressure and risks, China has maintained its comprehensive strategic partnership of cooperation with Russia, with frequent bilateral interactions in the form of high-level meetings, economic cooperation, military exchanges and people-to-people friendship.
According to information released by China’s General Administration of Customs, China-Russia trade volume in January and November was $172.4 billion, up 32 percent year-on-year, including $105 billion in imports from Russia, up 47.5 percent.
Given the current battlefield situation and the political landscape in Russia and elsewhere, there is no peace in sight for Russia and Ukraine. This is because Russia’s war objective of preserving its honor and status has not substantially changed. In Russia’s view, the geopolitical goal of the West in the post-Soviet space has been to contain Russia. However, an escalation or stalemate in the war poses significant risks for China. Safeguarding the interests of its own people is both the minimum and maximum principle for China’s response to this war — which is in fact the basic principle of how all countries conduct their diplomatic relations. In addition, unlike Russia’s focus on breaking the existing international order and rebuilding the Russian world (Russkiy Mir), China’s worldview is one of integration into the existing international order and playing an active role in it.
China has made it clear that it is “ready to work with other countries of the world to promote peace, development, equity, justice, democracy and freedom, which are the common values of humanity, and to address various global challenges.” Judging from the history of the rise and fall of world powers, China’s worldview is an egalitarian one. However, in the process of interacting with the world, traditional powers in the international system seem to have difficulty accepting China’s worldview and continue to nurse deep-rooted ideological prejudices against it.
China’s path to its status as a world power is not the reason for the decline of traditional powers, and China cannot solve the “Russia problem” in the West.
When and how the war between Russia and Ukraine will end remains an open question, but it is in China’s interest to promote the quick return of peace. After gradually emerging from the shadow of the global pandemic, China will play a peacemaking role in the Russia-Ukraine war in ways it sees fit and work to maintain peace and stability in the international order, under the premise of safeguarding the interests of the Chinese people.