Beijing’s positioning and language on the Ukraine crisis has shifted from trying to thread a fine line to leaning in favour of Moscow in recent weeks. Its initial response to the outbreak of full-scale war on Thursday (February 24) consisted of four components:
- Blame the US and NATO for the conflict.
- Provide tacit diplomatic support to Russia.
- Urge resolution of conflict through dialogue.
- Stress principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference.
There is a sense that Beijing has been caught off-guard by events on the ground. Perhaps this is because it is trying to balance competing and irreconcilable objectives, including its strategic relationship with Russia, its relations with the US and EU, foreign policy principles, and economic interests.
Blaming the US and NATO
Last week, at the Munich Security Conference, China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that:
since the Cold War is long gone, NATO, a product of the Cold War, needs to adapt itself to the changing circumstances. If NATO keeps expanding eastward, will this be conducive to peace and stability in Europe, and will this contribute to long-term stability in Europe? This is a question that merits serious consideration by European friends.
The subtext is clear: NATO expansion is to blame for the crisis over Ukraine.
When the US drove five waves of NATO expansion eastward all the way to Russia’s doorstep and deployed advanced offensive strategic weapons in breach of its assurances to Russia, did it ever think about the consequences of pushing a big country to the wall?
A day later, when Russia invaded Ukraine, Hua accused the US of lighting the fire:
The United States has been pushing up tensions and fomenting the danger of war for some time, and it has sent at least 1,000 tonnes of weapons and ammunition, worth at least US$1.5 billion, to Ukraine in the recent past… those who follow the US in fanning the flames and then accuse others of not helping to extinguish it are really not behaving responsibly. As the instigator, those who started the fire should consider how they can now take practical actions to put it out as soon as possible, instead of blaming others.
Beijing’s blaming of the US and NATO for the situation in Ukraine is striking and disingenuous. Even if we agree that US actions and NATO expansion contributed to Russian insecurity, a full-scale invasion is a wholly disproportionate response by Russia.
In Beijing’s narrative, Russia appears to be without agency or moral culpability. But, no amount of blame-shifting can change the fact that Moscow consciously decided to invade another sovereign state in blatant violation of international law.
On Thursday (February 24), Wang Yi and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke on the phone. Wang Yi said to Lavrov that:
China has always respected the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries. At the same time, we also see that the Ukrainian issue has its complexity and special historical context. We understand the Russian side's legitimate concerns on security issues. China advocates the complete abandonment of the Cold War mentality, and through dialogue and negotiations, the eventual formation of a European security regime that is balanced, effective and sustainable.
The words “at the same time” above can be equated to the word “but”, so Wang was actually saying: “yes, sovereignty and territorial integrity are important, but you know, what you [Russia] are doing is understandable.” Note that the Chinese term used by Wang Yi, 理解, does not only refer to rational understanding but also imply some degree of empathy.
Beijing has also indicated that it opposes sanctions against Russia and cautioned the US against harming Chinese interests in targeting Russia. In Hua’s words:
[China’s] position is that sanctions are never fundamentally effective means to solve problems. We consistently oppose all illegal unilateral sanctions.
Since 2011, the US has imposed more than 100 sanctions on Russia. However, have the US sanctions solved any problem? Is the world a better place because of those sanctions? Will the Ukraine issue resolve itself thanks to the US sanctions on Russia?
When handling the Ukraine issue and relations with Russia, the US mustn’t harm the legitimate rights and interests of China and other parties.
Not only is Beijing opposed to placing sanctions on Russia for its aggression, but it may even provide an economic lifeline for Russia as it comes under mounting economic pressure. We saw a symbolic gesture by Beijing already: the very day that war broke out, China’s customs authority issued a notice allowing the importation of wheat from all Russian territories.
What is striking is how fast Beijing has leaned towards Moscow this time around. China’s responses to the 2008 Russo-Georgian War and Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea were both cautious and ambivalent. Shifting geopolitical context (China-US competition, China-Russia alignment and Chinese power) is probably what made the difference.
Beijing’s fundamental dilemma is that its objectives are not mutually compatible. On the one hand, it wants to grow its strategic relations with Russia; on the other, Beijing wishes to stabilise relations with the US and maintain its ties with the EU. If the US and EU member states come to view Beijing as complicit in Russian aggression against Ukraine, then China may well pay a hefty price.
The other dilemma that Beijing faces is how to resolve two distinctly contradictory approaches — a universalist one that claims to adhere to the principles of “sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference” with that of a particularist one in which “the Ukrainian issue has its complexity, and special historical context...[Beijing] understands Russia’s legitimate security concerns”.
At present, Beijing seems to have identified itself with the very assertion that it often labels the US as having — double standards. Claiming to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries while at the same time rationalising Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is not a coherent position regardless of how pragmatic it may appear to Beijing currently.
Based on Beijing’s disjointed response to the outbreak of war in Ukraine, the Chinese leadership is probably still working through the above dilemmas and on how to articulate its messaging.
By Adam Ni, edited by Alexander Davey.