By being called to mediate and pressured to abide by sanctions, China’s decisive role in the raging war in Ukraine comes into full view. Many hope that Beijing can leverage its influence over Moscow and Kyiv to de-escalate the situation and make space for high-level dialogue. An increasingly isolated Russia reportedly requested Chinese financial and military assistance, while the United States sought to discourage Beijing from throwing such a lifeline. All these put China in a bind.
How China will reconcile and balance these competing demands will determine its leadership stature. Playing a constructive role in ending the conflict will enhance China’s international standing. Keeping robust ties with a strong Russia is crucial in promoting a multipolar world and securing a strategic partner as great power competition intensifies. Avoiding further deterioration of its relations with the United States and the West is desirable to defuse tensions and foster a stable external environment conducive to global recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic. Both sides of the divide want to court China to their side. Three weeks before launching his campaign in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin flew to Beijing hours before the opening of the Winter Olympics. During the visit, China and Russia signed a joint statement outlining cooperation in a broad range of areas. Roughly three weeks into Russia’s advance into Ukraine, it was America’s turn. U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Chinese Politburo member and Director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Yang Jiechi met in Rome to discuss the Ukraine tragedy. Days later, Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping spoke by telephone.
Facing stiffer-than-expected resistance and confronted with severe sanctions abroad and growing dissent at home, Russia’s position becomes untenable as the war drags on. Failure to get urgently needed Chinese relief may force it to take face-saving talks more seriously. On the other hand, frustration over NATO dismissing its request for a “no-fly zone” over its skies, realizing the ordeals in its bid to join the transatlantic alliance, and desiring an immediate end to the Russian siege, Ukraine would surely welcome a broker that can pull the Kremlin to the negotiating table. Finally, wanting to confine the conflict and wind it down, the U.S. and the West hope China will help close the loop and deny Russia the means to sustain its assault against its neighbor. Beijing can thus play a role in bringing the war to an end, but a decision is not an easy one to make.
There are several scenarios that can play out. One, China accommodates the West and withholds aid to Russia. Absent external support, Russia may fail to take Kyiv and other key cities (or get them at high cost), diminishing its position in the negotiations. Meanwhile, Ukraine’s resilience, thanks to NATO weaponry, training, and intelligence raised the odds in its favor. While Ukraine may drop its NATO bid, the same may not be said of its EU aspirations, and the contours of neutrality will be intensely deliberated. Kyiv may demand the recovery of Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, and the reintegration of separatist-controlled areas in the Donbas, which Moscow recognized as independent last month. Western backing, international sympathy, and Russian battlefield setbacks may give Ukraine an edge over the status of the strategic peninsula and Russian-speaking regions in the country’s east.
There may be some reprieve in U.S.-China relations, but as the dynamics behind the competition is structural in nature, it may only be a matter of time before the full spotlight swings back to the Asian theater - only this time China faces the brunt alone. A defeated and weakened Russia crushed by sanctions will make China more vulnerable to coordinated pressure from the U.S. and its European and Indo-Pacific allies. The war in Ukraine galvanized the transatlantic alliance, and greater U.S.-Europe coordination may spillover the defense domain into trade, investment, technology, and standards-setting. Even before the war in Ukraine erupted, France, Germany, the Netherlands and eventually the EU itself expressed renewed interest in the Indo-Pacific rolling out their respective policy or strategy documents which showed some striking synergies with that of the U.S. This can put Beijing in a corner. Forsaking Russia also sends unwanted signals to other countries that count on China in standing up against the West or wanting to seek a counterweight to a perceived overbearing Washington. Iran, Pakistan, Venezuela, and Cambodia make the shortlist. Yielding to Western overtures will not make Chinese leaders look good at home and will surely undermine ties with Russia. With the 20th Communist Party Congress set late in the year, bowing to foreign pressure and abandoning the closest to an ally it can get will not be judged well.
The second scenario is for China to ignore U.S. pleas and extend help to Russia. If this unlocks resources to reinforce the Russian offensive, the fall of Kyiv and other key cities may fortify Russia’s place in a diplomatic solution. Not only will Ukraine give up joining NATO, but it may also be compelled to give up a similar interest to join the EU. Russia may have a Ukrainian neutrality more to its liking, and the fait accompli in Crimea may be sealed, with Kyiv also likely to lose control of rebel-held Donetsk and Luhansk. China and Russia’s partnership with “no limits” will be bolstered, and Beijing may count on Moscow’s support in contentious flashpoints like the Taiwan Strait and South and East China Seas. Given U.S. warnings, China will face Western sanctions, relations with the U.S. and Europe will worsen, Chinese forays in Eastern Europe will suffer reversals, and there may be more concerted U.S. and EU censure of Chinese human rights and trade practices, maritime claims, and activities in regional hotspots.
The third scenario is when China attempts a soft landing. Grounded on its own respect for the inviolability of a state’s territorial integrity and non-interference in another country’s sovereign affairs, it will not abet Russia’s incursion. That said, it will still refrain from openly naming, more so denouncing Moscow. Beijing may dispatch humanitarian assistance to Ukraine and support the country’s reconstruction, while limiting assistance to Russia to non-lethal goods. China will not impose sanctions on Russia, but will restrict commercial engagement to transactions reached pre-invasion. It will use its leverage to call for a ceasefire and bring top leaders of both Russia and Ukraine to one table to chart a roadmap for peace. China may time its intervention when conditions no longer favor further Russian advance on the ground or when Moscow can no longer bear the costs of being an international pariah. Beijing will hope that this middle ground will temper the blowback from the West.
The window for Russia is closing as the pressure for China to intercede grows. Beijing does not want to overly estrange ties with Moscow, nor does it want to disregard Washington’s appeal. The war in Ukraine could reorder the China-Russia-U.S. triangle with profound consequences for global geopolitics. China has no failsafe option as each route requires trade-offs with respective risks and rewards.