The Ukrainian conflict is the most serious geopolitical conflict since World War II, and it will have far-reaching consequences for the global order. Although the war is being fought on European and Asian borders, the rest of the world is not immune, and major actors are expected to take a stand against Russian aggression. While Western actors, particularly the United States and the European Union, have taken harsh measures against Moscow, imposing the most severe sanctions since the 1990s sanctions against Yugoslavia, Beijing appears to be on the sidelines and attempting to maintain a neutral position.
Despite its neutral stance on the conflict, Beijing remains closer to Moscow than Kyiv in the eyes of observers. As such, China’s stance is interpreted as support for Russian aggression in the absence of direct condemnation. However, it appears that China’s only interest in current events is the Chinese interest. That is why China is frequently regarded as the only actor capable of being in a better position than it was. China has been very consistent in its position since the beginning of the conflict, condemning any threat to territorial integrity and escalation of the conflict, and calling for a peaceful solution and a diplomatic approach to the conflict. What is missing from Chinese officials’ statements is a condemnation of Russia and the invasion. China is even one of the countries that has abstained on the issue of the UN resolution condemning Russia’s invasion, confirming its neutral position.
From this, it could be concluded that China still sees Russia as its favorite in the conflict. However, the matter is far more complicated. Russia has secured its eastern flank with Beijing’s tacit approval to invade Donbas first, then other parts of Ukraine. It is unlikely that the Russian and Chinese leaders met at the start of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, and that entering Ukraine was not one of the topics discussed at a time when more than 100,000 Russian soldiers are stationed on the Ukrainian border. Chinese officials have even had to deny allegations that Xi Jinping asked Vladimir Putin to postpone the invasion until after the Winter Olympics. The fact that there was some harmonization is also indicated by the example that when the Western countries imposed the first sanctions on Russia, China lifted trade barriers and allowed wheat imports from Russia. Furthermore, Beijing continues to be Vladimir Putin’s reliable economic partner, providing space and some stability at a time when the West has completely distanced itself from him.
In all of this, Beijing’s position is complicated by the desire to emerge from the current situation with an unblemished reputation. The world’s negative perception of China is on the rise, so it’s not surprising that the world’s attention was drawn to Taiwan at the same time Russia invaded Donbas. The fact that Beijing does not recognize Taiwan’s independence, and that the global public expects that after the complete reintegration of Hong Kong into its political system, the next step is the reintegration of Taiwan, which could not have occurred without military intervention. However, it has turned out that, for the time being, those expectations are not justified because Beijing has shown no desire for the conflict to spread beyond Ukraine. Another reason for Beijing’s ambiguous stance is that the conflict in Ukraine does not appear to be progressing as Russia had hoped. China has made no plans to distance itself from Moscow, nor has it done so thus far. However, Russia’s situation has led to Beijing being viewed as a facilitator of the aggressor regime, allowing the conflict to continue and the number of casualties to rise. As a result, calling for peace, stability, and diplomatic resolution of the conflict is the most rational position that Beijing could take, creating the best position for further representation of its interests.
First and foremost, China wishes to strengthen its global power position. China wants to play a key role in potential international mediation, calling for peace and diplomatic resolution of the dispute. Participating in conflict resolution in Europe would position China as a key partner in the future maintenance of peace. It is not in China’s best interests to divide spheres of influence as they did during the Cold War. A strong foothold in Europe is a step toward overcoming the Cold War discourse, as Chinese officials have stated following the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine. The position of a partner that, in addition to economic cooperation and a guarantor of peace, would inextricably link China to European countries, strengthening its position of power on a global level.
One of the reasons China could play the role of a peacemaker is its relationship with Russia. If China only hinted at sanctioning Russia in any way, it would mean complete economic isolation for Moscow, preventing long-term survival of war efforts. Russia, on the other hand, has ways to ensure that Beijing does not turn its back on it in addition to distancing itself. In a nutshell, it would be Siberia, specifically the natural resources it has to offer. Whether it is direct access or preferential trade relations, Russia’s natural wealth can keep Beijing in its current position, which is that of a state that will not directly condemn Moscow’s aggression and invasion. There is a third option that is neither exploitation nor trade: Beijing’s direct takeover of resources. In a scenario in which Russia is exhausted by the war, if not completely defeated, the entry of Chinese firms is more than a plausible possibility. This can occur under the guise of an economic savior, i.e. the acquisition of large Russian corporations, as in many other countries. Another option is for China to impose itself on the international community as a guarantor of peace, i.e. an actor who will keep Moscow in check so that it does not become an aggressor again. None of these three scenarios necessitates China condemning Russia or taking a position defined by belonging to either side, allowing China to postpone its final decision and position.
In addition to a distant and neutral stance toward the parties directly involved in the conflict in Ukraine, China seizes every opportunity to convey its views on what should be the post-crisis global order. China has openly supported accusations that the US and Ukraine were collaborating to develop biological weapons. American officials deemed these accusations to be unfounded and based on shaky evidence. They do, however, point to a trend of war (dis)information, particularly since the beginning of the Kovid-19 pandemic, when China and the United States blamed each other for the virus. It is unclear what further deterioration of Washington-Beijing relations would entail, but a meeting between White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Chinese diplomat Yang Yiechi stated that the US would work to make China feel the consequences of supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Although it appears that the actors want to avoid a new Cold War and the division of spheres of interest, an explicit definite attitude is imposed – if you are not with us, you are against us. It will be especially interesting to see how many actors, such as Washington, are willing to give Beijing a larger role in resolving the Ukrainian issue.
All of this suggests that there is no doubts that history has not ended. We can no longer speak of a unipolar global order, armed conflicts on European soil are no longer a thing of the past, and we have a Giant from the East capable of taking the lead in one part of the world once more. Whether acting in self-interest or in support of partners, China’s actions in the ongoing crisis demonstrate that it has evolved into a superpower whose moves are interpreted, considered, or simply defined by global developments. It remains to be seen whether Beijing will confirm its allegiance with open support for Moscow in this new order, or whether there will be a schism between the two.
The text was originally published in Novi Magazin, no. 568, March 17, 2022.
The author of the text is the program coordinator of the BFPE Foundation for a Responsible Society.