China’s latest balancing act in the war in Ukraine

From the day Russia invaded Ukraine, the geopolitics of the war have mattered almost as much as events on the battlefield. And for all the focus on the U.S. and its NATO allies and their robust support for the Ukrainian resistance, China’s role has loomed large. And it’s not always clear where exactly President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party stand when it comes to the war.

Recent developments have heightened the attention on Beijing. On Sunday, the Biden administration issued the latest of several public warnings against China providing military aid to Russia — in the wake of reports that such aid was in the offing. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said weapons sent to Moscow would be used to harm civilians in Ukraine, and that China would face “real costs” if it went ahead with arms shipments to Russia. “China should want no part of that,” Sullivan said on ABCs “This Week.”

On Friday, the anniversary of the Russian invasion, China issued a 12-point position paper on the war (or the “Ukraine crisis,” as China prefers to call it) that laid out conditions for a negotiated solution. The document was seen as heavily biased toward Russia; it suggested a ceasefire that would freeze Russian gains in place and offered no condemnation of the invasion itself. The document got at best lukewarm reactions in Western capitals, and outright dismissals in others. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy responded by saying he would be happy to meet with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping — adding, “China historically respects our territorial integrity, and it should therefore do everything for Russia to leave the territory of Ukraine.”

Over the weekend, Beijing announced it would host Belarus’ President Aleksandr Lukashenko, a close Kremlin ally, for a state visit. That drew a suggestion via Twitter from a top aide to Zelenskyy that China choose its allies more carefully. “You don’t bet on an aggressor who broke international law and will lose the war,” Mykhailo Podolyak wrote. “This is shortsighted.”

For its part, China said Monday that the U.S. was “hypocritical” to warn Beijing about sending weapons to Russia. “While the United States has intensified its efforts to send weapons to one of the conflicting parties, resulting in endless wars and no end in sight for peace, it has frequently spread false information about China’s supply of weapons to Russia,” said Mao Ning, the spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry.

Taken together, the recent developments highlight China’s complex and often opaque approach to the war. Just three weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin and China’s leader Xi Jinping met and declared a “no limits” friendship and were sharply critical of NATO and the U.S. Ever since the war began, China has sought to balance the partnership with Russia against a concern that it not rupture completely its relationship with the West.

To date, the balance has tilted toward Moscow; China has refused to criticize Putin, kept up a busy wartime commerce with Russia, amplified Russian falsehoods about Ukraine and placed blame for the war at the feet of the NATO alliance. Now China is in effect nominating itself as a neutral broker in a possible resolution to the conflict.

As the war enters its second year, Grid spoke with two experts on Sino-Russian relations — Cheng Chen, a Professor of Political Science at University at Albany, State University of New York, and Marcin Kaczmarski, a lecturer in security studies at the University of Glasgow. They weighed in on the latest signals from China and what they might portend.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Grid: Has China’s position on the war shifted in any significant way over the last year?

Cheng Chen: From the beginning, China has emphasized that its position remains neutral and will not take sides. This rhetoric has not changed. At the same time, China has significantly toned down its enthusiasm when talking about relationship with Russia. Although China refused to condemn Russian aggression, it made it clear that it had no prior knowledge of Putin’s plan of invasion and paid lip service to the importance of sovereignty.

This “neutral” stance, however, does not prevent China from playing a major and indispensable role in propping up Russia’s embattled economy, which contributes directly to Russia’s war efforts. It also does not prevent China from carrying out joint military exercises and joint military patrols, or holding high-level meetings and even summits with Russia, which thwarts the West’s efforts to make Russia an international pariah. In this sense, China has provided Russia with a vital lifeline in this time of crisis.

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Marcin Kaczmarski: Firstly, I think China’s position on the war has evolved with the war, because my understanding was that China, just as Russia and many countries around the world, expected that it would be a very quick war, with a decisive victory for Russia.

Once it turned out that Ukraine was successfully resisting, and the West had united quite unexpectedly behind Ukraine, the Chinese feeling about the war started changing. On the one hand, China is trapped in this attempt to position itself as a neutral party — and this is what I would say Beijing attempts to do vis-à-vis the external world. But on the other hand, Beijing struggles to avoid any association with the West against Russia.

This position, which China presents as neutrality, in the West is read as support for Russia. This is why the Chinese narratives, the official discourses, are repeating Russian points, blaming the U.S., blaming NATO for the war, and so on. In this sense, I would say China’s trying to walk this line since it turned out that the war was going to last longer than we expected, than Russia expected.

G: Just how significant has China’s trade with Russia been in keeping Russia afloat economically?

MK: There are two main points here. Firstly, China is not alone in this capitalizing on Russia’s difficulties, in finding other customers. If we look at India or Turkey, these two states have also rushed to buy Russian oil, for instance. Second point is that in the case of China, my argument would be that it is still Chinese companies that are capitalizing on Russian difficulties and capitalizing on the fact that Russia has to sell oil, for instance, on discounted prices, rather than a strategic decision of the Chinese state to throw its economic weight behind Russia.

One instance is a project, the Trans-Mongolian Gas Pipeline, which Russia has lobbied quite strongly for, and which will be a clear signal that China is offering an alternative market to the European gas market. But so far, Mongolia says “yes,” Russia is willing to proceed with the project, but China still does not agree to a contract. I see it as the absence of China’s strategic support.

G: What do you make of the reports that China is considering providing Russia with weapons? Do you think that’s going to happen? Why or why not?

CC: Currently, there is no evidence that China has provided lethal aid to Russia. In the short term, it is highly unlikely that China will directly provide lethal weapons to Russia, because that would undermine any pretense of China’s neutrality and deprive Xi’s peace plan of any credibility. It would also subject China to severe Western sanctions at a time when China really wants to focus on economic growth after ending its zero-covid policy.

Nevertheless, there are numerous other ways in which China could boost Russia’s military capability, including supplying various nonlethal aid and dual-use materials and components, many of which have origins that are hard to trace. These options are much less costly, and therefore likely to remain China’s preference. All this, of course, does not mean there aren’t internal discussions of other options, as reported by The Wall Street Journal. The U.S.’s revelation of this intelligence, I think, might be for the purpose of deterring Beijing from actually pursuing that path, and implicitly discrediting Xi’s “neutral” peace plan.

MK: First, the Chinese leadership would not like to see Russia lose this war, because this would mean that the West is reinforced, that the whole narrative of the West’s decline, which is so widespread in Chinese official discourse, that this narrative is not exactly correct.

But at the same time, we have also seen the Chinese as unwilling to openly support Russia in circumventing or bypassing sanctions. While I wouldn’t exclude that there are some weapons deliveries to Russia, I think, from Beijing’s perspective, it is still too costly. Perhaps not that costly in relations with the U.S., because I would think the Chinese elite sees the conflict with the U.S. as rather a permanent feature of China’s position in the world. But it would be much more problematic when it comes to Europe, because in my understanding, China still hopes to either drive a wedge or keep Europe at a certain distance from the U.S., especially when it comes to a potential joint trans-Atlantic policy toward China.

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As I said, I wouldn’t exclude such arms supplies; but I would say that their potential costs outweigh benefits for China at this stage.

G: Did anything stand out you in China’s new position paper on the war?

CC: I did notice the thinly veiled criticisms of the U.S.’s “double standards” regarding sovereignty and NATO expansion. The document doesn’t contain specifics about a potential peace process and is therefore open to potential interpretations. Notably, it does not explicitly call for any Russian military withdrawal from occupied territories.

In the coming months, it is likely that China will come up with more specific plans to broker peace. The first point in the current document [”Respecting the Sovereignty of All Countries”] is apparently an attempt to reassure Ukraine and the West that China does not support Russia’s territorial annexations. The points which follow, however, point to a pause to NATO’s future expansion and lifting sanctions against Russia. These points hardly dispel the West’s impression of China’s bias toward Russia and will be difficult for Ukraine to accept under present circumstances. How to convince Ukraine of Beijing’s sincerity and true neutrality will remain a challenge.

MK: In this position paper, there’s no clear stance that [the war] might end if Russia decided to just withdraw. I would see it as part of, on the one hand, China’s own efforts to present itself as this neutral party. Secondly, it is probably also a signal sent to Europe, because there are some policymakers and elites in Europe that encouraged China to do something about Russia, and to use this leverage that they have with Russia in order to influence Moscow.

But I think China’s trying to square the circle. On the one hand, it wants to appeal to Europe and pull Europe a bit away from the U.S. But at the same time, it doesn’t want to criticize Russia in any way. This is why I think it leads to this very vague and general paper where China doesn’t take an explicit position, but rather tries to hide behind general formulations which on their own may be correct and rightful, but when you apply them, they don’t work.

China might have been more explicit about the need for Russia to do certain things. Or, in practical terms, China’s leader might finally talk to President Zelenskyy. The Chinese leadership has avoided any bilateral talks, any phone calls with Zelenskyy, which also shows those difficulties — how China has maneuvered in between trying not to be associated with Russia, but at the same time, not wanting to suggest the outside world that their ties with Russia are somehow fragile because of this war.

G: Following up on the first point in the document, which calls for respecting the sovereignty of all countries, how do you interpret that in this context?

MK: This is very problematic because this sentence can be read in a number of ways. The first reading could just be that China means that Russia should respect Ukraine’s sovereignty. But then, the Russian policymakers might say that what China says is actually supporting the [2014] annexation of Crimea. China hasn’t ever formally recognized the annexation — but at the same time, China has never called for Crimea to return to Ukraine.

I think this is one of the problems of this position paper: Each side can read it as they want, or as it is convenient for their aims in this war.

G: Looking ahead at what role China wants to play in the peace process, do you think it will move toward more concrete asks of Russia or bilateral talks with Ukraine? And do you think Ukraine and the West would be open to China’s involvement?

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CC: One year into the conflict, neither side has been able to deliver a crushing blow on the battlefield. Consequently, neither side has strong incentives to engage in negotiations to end the conflict. As Russia’s most powerful partner, China definitely has leverage. China chose this moment to step in because it wants to counter the U.S.’s accusation that China took the side of the aggressor — Russia — and establish its image as a major global mediator.

Other than the two sides of the conflict, China has two target audiences. One is Europe, which has been rightly concerned about China’s role in supporting Russia and contemplating “decoupling” from China amid growing U.S.-China tension. Knowing that most European countries are averse to a protracted conflict, China hopes to be seen as playing a proactive role in ending the conflict while reassuring Europe that continuing engagement with China will not undermine European interests. The other major target audience is the Global South, which so far has not taken a side. China has endeavored to be seen as a leader of the Global South. Proposing a peace plan, which is dismissed by the West, will make China appear to be the more reasonable and pro-peace party as opposed to the U.S.’s “adding fuel to the fire.” In sum, Xi’s peace plan is fundamentally driven by China’s own interests.

In this sense, the fact that China is coming up with a peace plan now is more significant than the substance of the plan itself, which is unlikely to make either side happy. As the current status quo on the battlefield favors Russia [because Russia is still occupying large chunks of Ukrainian territory], a call to “freeze” the conflict as it is, even if in a demilitarized fashion, is still biased toward Russia. China’s point, however, is not for Ukraine and the West to accept this proposal, but to embellish its “neutral” and “pro-peace” image in order to appeal to Europe and the Global South.

MK: Any changes in China’s position will relate to potential changes on the ground. If Ukraine manages to regain some of its territories, if it demonstrates on the battlefield that it is capable of inflicting damage on the Russian forces, and if there is a success of the Ukrainian counteroffensive, then I would expect China to be more flexible and perhaps to decide that, in its own interest, it’s better to help with the end of the conflict by distancing at least a bit from Russia or by pushing Russia to accept certain conditions if and when negotiations start. But I think that it really depends on what happens on the battlefield. At this stage, the calculus in Beijing is still that Russia is able to win this war.

G: Xi might visit Russia in April or May. Do you have any thoughts on why then, and what the aim of the visit would be?

MK: If we are talking about April and May, it is most plausibly a sign that the Chinese side didn’t want the visit to take place in February, around the anniversary of the war.

Secondly, it is China’s turn. Apart from the period of the pandemic, when both leaders didn’t travel, they saw each other every year. Even before Putin’s return to the presidency. So in this sense, Xi Jinping’s not going to Moscow would have been read in the West very clearly as a signal of tensions in the relationship, and even if tensions are there, both sides would work hard to sweep them under the carpet.

So I think in this sense, Xi doesn’t have a choice. He needs to go to Moscow to demonstrate the relations are still very good and normal despite the war. But the fact that he’s not rushing there may be a sign that they are once again trying to strike this balance between cordial relations with Russia and attempts to be neutral.

Thanks to Dave Tepps for copy editing this article.


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