China’s Ukraine Gambit: Beijing Plays Both Sides

Its leaders clearly believe China’s contradictory stance offers it the best chance of protecting Chinese interests and finding opportunity in this crisis.

Mao Zedong was fond of quoting a line from a Han Dynasty historian: “Things that oppose each other also complement each other.” Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China has drawn international opprobrium for its contradictory positions on the conflict. Beijing has been careful to publicly signal its full commitment to a “rock solid” Sino-Russian partnership, maintaining joint “strategic strength” despite the crisis. China has legitimized Russia’s use of force by describing it as the outcome of “legitimate security demands,” resolutely refused to call Moscow’s actions an invasion or war, amplified Moscow’s conflict narratives, and opposed the harsh U.S.-led sanctions. Above all, it has repeatedly portrayed Russia as the victim of NATO expansion and a U.S. desire to fan “the flames of discord.”

But, China has also persisted in declaring its firm support for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, including Ukraine. It has called on “all parties” to exercise restraint, including Russia, and said it “does not want to see” the current situation in Ukraine, to which it has also provided limited humanitarian assistance.

Beijing finds itself astride two policy tracks that appear to be moving in opposite directions: committed to affirming its carefully cultivated ties with Russia but also committed to upholding, at least rhetorically, the inviolability of territorial sovereignty. As Russia’s invasion enters a new phase, and more evidence of tragedies of emerge, China’s gambit may become increasingly uncomfortable. But its leaders clearly judge that staying on both tracks offers it the best chance of protecting Chinese interests and finding opportunity in this crisis.

Domestic Considerations

In part, this is likely because China’s interests are multilayered. China’s leaders view the war in Ukraine through the lens of domestic politics. Given that Sino-Russian partnership is a core element in China’s foreign policy and having reaffirmed in a February joint statement that the two countries’ “friendship … has no limit,” criticizing Russian policy could be tantamount to admitting that Chinese President Xi Jinping’s embrace of Putin was a miscalculation. Beijing is particularly wary of such criticism at the moment as Xi’s government faces a number of domestic economic and political challenges, not least the country’s painful struggle to maintain its zero-COVID policy.

Amid domestic tension, China’s leaders see little benefit in calling past foreign policies into question, but may see much value in using the war in Ukraine to mobilize domestic support. In this context, the official picture presented to the Chinese public of a Russia wronged by the West and “forced” to take action to protect its security — a picture painted in part by Russian disinformation recirculated in China’s state-owned media ecosystem — has found a receptive Chinese public so far. According to available data, the Chinese public’s views of the United States are highly negative. Certainly, this is the message that Beijing wishes to convey to the United States. Commenting on a poll reporting that 90 percent of Chinese netizens believe the United States is a “hegemon and a bully in the Ukraine issue,” Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian said that the poll “reflects the voice for justice for the majority” against U.S. “hegemony and bullying” and against U.S. efforts to “hold down China and Russia simultaneously.” At the same time, references by Beijing to the importance of sovereignty invoke a trope familiar to Chinese audiences schooled in “enthusiasm to defend national territories.” China’s provision of humanitarian aid to Ukraine also enables Chinese leaders to convey to the Chinese public that it is acting in a way consistent with the image of China’s benevolent leadership or authority — vaunted as an attribute of Chinese exceptionalism.

Foreign Policy Objectives

China’s stance also reflects its strategic objectives abroad. China has an interest in sustaining relations with both Ukraine and Russia. Prior to the war, Ukraine had been China’s third-leading supplier of military equipment. It was also a rapidly growing economic partner for China. Ukraine has billions of dollars in lending commitments from China, appeared set to help China diversify its agricultural imports and serves as an important transit hub to Europe for China’s Belt and Road Initiative.

But upholding the Sino-Russian partnership is a far more important, and immediate, strategic priority. China’s ties with post-Cold War Russia have developed into multifaceted security cooperation as Beijing’s role as an importer of Russian energy and investor in Russia’s economy has rapidly expanded. Chinese lending to Russia since 2000 has been at least $125 billion, approximately 18 percent of China’s total lending in the past two decades. Over the same period, the two countries have converged around a shared view of the U.S. threat. This common worldview has manifested in the two sides’ partnered efforts to reform aspects of international governance and to coordinate against perceived efforts by “external forces” to destabilize their peripheries, as seen in their coordinated efforts in Central Asia.

Beijing may believe that its contradictory stance on Ukraine represents two opportunities. The first is in Europe, where Beijing appears to be positioning itself as the neutral champion of a diplomatic solution to the crisis and an essential power not only to Russia but also to Ukraine and the West. By suggesting that it is prepared to mediate — and that it has been encouraging Moscow to engage in talks with Kyiv — Beijing likely hopes to improve its strained relations with European countries both concerned that China’s partnership with Russia emboldened Putin and alienated by China’s unwillingness to condemn Russia’s invasion.

The second opportunity lies to the south, particularly in India. Beijing’s position has enabled it to engage in dialogue with New Delhi, which has its own set of important relationships with Russia. Following violence between the two countries along their disputed border, and with India resisting U.S. pressure to condemn Russia, Chinese leaders hope that the war in Ukraine will provide an opportunity to reframe Sino-Indian relations away from confrontation and toward a form of cooperative solidarity against Western hegemony. Indeed, this crisis has raised questions about the resilience of India’s partnership with the United States and its QUAD allies. Beyond India, the crisis has triggered a flurry of Chinese diplomatic engagement in the Global South, much of which looks on the war in Ukraine through the lens of its potential economic fallout. To these states, China has emphasized the impact of sanctions and the devastating disruption to world grain supplies, the blame for which it has sought to place solely at the feet of the United States and NATO.

Countering American Hegemony

Underlying China’s contradictory stance, moreover, is a belief that the United States engineered the conflict to preserve American hegemony. Seen in this light, China’s simultaneous hard commitment to partnership with Russia and soft criticism of the violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty makes sense. If the Ukraine conflict is the result of U.S.-NATO pressure on Russia, and the United States and its allies are seeking to extend NATO’s reach into the Indo-Pacific to further strengthen their capacity to contain and weaken China — a common view among Chinese elites — then China has little choice but to stay wedded to Russia. But it must also avoid becoming involved in the conflict. Beijing’s quasi-alliance with Moscow not only simplifies China’s broader strategic calculus by giving it new modalities for resources and a stable 2,600-mile northern border, but also provides it with a partner whose support it will need, to paraphrase one Chinese commentator, as it “wrestles with the United States” over Taiwan.

This suggests that the primary driver of China’s policies toward the war in Ukraine is opposition to the United States. By treating Ukraine as another manifestation of U.S. aggression, China can characterize both the international and domestic challenges it faces from the crisis as rooted in U.S. actions. Although Xi’s warm relationship with Putin seems increasingly inexecrable to international observers — even as information about Russian atrocities seeps into the Chinese public’s consciousness — China’s ties to Russia will almost certainly remain seen as essential sources of China’s own security and sovereignty in Beijing. China will also be able to blame U.S.-led sanctions for narrowing international opportunities available to Chinese businesses and future supply chain issues, even if those are more directly related to the pandemic. China will continue to engage in diplomacy with countries in the developing world who are suspicious of U.S. and European power and welcome Beijing’s anti-Western narrative. China’s current stance also puts it in a position to benefit economically in some ways, including by securing additional energy supplies from Russia and by helping China develop alternatives to the dollar that accelerate its efforts to sanction-proof itself.

However, Beijing’s gambit also carries heavy potential costs. Its decision not to condemn Russia is seen in many capitals, not least Washington and Taipei, as a sign that Beijing condones Moscow’s irredentist and security claims in Ukraine as a parallel to its own interests in Taiwan and the rest of its periphery. Among U.S. partners in Asia, this will tend to buttress support for the United States, including on Taiwan itself. Certainly, the United States is now weighing much stronger military commitments to deter attacks on Taiwan, with influential voices arguing that United States should abandon the policy of strategic ambiguity.

In addition, there have been signs of diplomatic damage to China close to home. Some states near China have expressed their discomfort with its ambiguous stance, and China’s refusal to condemn Russian aggression distinguishes it from many of its neighbors. Notably, nearly all countries in ASEAN supported a U.N. General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from which China abstained, including several countries that have territorial disputes with China. These countries recognize that China’s contradictory stance raises critical questions about the character and credibility of its declaratory commitment to state sovereignty. For example, it may suggest that China sees sovereignty less as a universal principle that is the responsibility of the international community to uphold and defend than as a right to be defended by individual states. This prospect is deeply troubling for countries in China’s near abroad when seen against the backdrop of China’s statements on the South China Sea that suggested might sometimes makes right.

China’s contradictory stance is thus driven by the confluence of domestic politics, longstanding policies and strategic calculations. China evidently believes that the uncomfortable straddle between a commitment to Russia, on the one hand, and a commitment to sovereignty, on the other, is best solved by going on the rhetorical attack against the United States.

An Opportunity for Improved U.S.-China Relations?

But it is also worth asking whether China’s gambit might also provide an opportunity for improved U.S.-China relations. Even as China’s propagandists intensify anti-U.S. invective, some members of China’s policy elite deplore China’s current course that risks shackling China to a weak and isolated Russia with high economic opportunity costs. Another expert in a policy research center in China’s State Council goes so far as to argue that ending China’s support for Russia will not only garner it international praise but also create an opportunity for China to improve its relations with the United States and the West.

Beijing has also signaled that improving ties with the United States would be the prerequisite for it to play a more significant role in mediation in the conflict. Such a scenario is not out of the realm of possibility: The United States can perhaps build on China’s restraint in contributing materiel to the Russian war effort, along with Beijing’s care not to violate sanctions against Russia, and pursue avenues to jointly invest in rebuilding Ukraine. Moreover, Russia’s invasion has demonstrated that nothing in war is ever assured, and over the coming months will give the world a taste of the wrenching, almost unthinkable economic and political dislocation that would inevitably follow from a U.S.-China war. The war and its aftershocks could thus motivate leaders to reconsider the risks of confrontation, pushing both states to search out opportunities to reduce tensions. If “things that oppose each other also complement each other,” then perhaps within the U.S. and Chinese stances on the Ukraine conflict there may be room for common ground.

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