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Since the first day of Russia’s war on Ukraine, people have wondered how the Chinese government would respond: Would it try to rein in Vladimir Putin with its considerable leverage in the face of Western sanctions against Russia? Would it broker a cease-fire and bring Russia and Ukraine into peace talks? Might it possibly join Western sanctions against Russia?
Or would China instead side with Russia by providing overt diplomatic and military support?
One month into the war, China’s stance is becoming clear. It will not do any of the above. Instead, its responses will be calculated entirely in terms of how it can make gains against its geopolitical rival, the United States. The most revealing and succinct statement of China’s position came in a tweet from the China Global Television Network (CGTN) news anchor Liu Xin on March 19. This was the day Xi Jinping and Joe Biden held a two-hour video conference call. Liu’s tweet, written in English and directed at CGTN’s global audience, mocked American requests for China to do more: “Can you help me fight your friend so that I can concentrate on fighting you later?”
That, in a nutshell, is how Xi Jinping and the Chinese leadership approach the Russian invasion of Ukraine. China’s responses will be determined by its rivalry with the United States—and what China regards as its own coming conflict with America.
In its more formal statements about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Chinese government has moved from an initial stance of blaming NATO expansion and making insipid calls for “restraint on both sides” to now sitting back and waiting to see which direction the war takes. A prolonged conflict risks putting China in a difficult position, as it has to continue rationalizing Russia’s actions and abstain from UN resolutions and condemnations of atrocities. Some Chinese analysts now worry that the war will inject new life into the dreaded American-led liberal global order that was previously in decline. But the majority of Chinese analysts has concluded that if the war is prolonged, the prospects are greater that America and Europe will divide over how to manage the consequences of the war, in terms of refugee flows, energy prices, and arms shipments to Ukrainian forces.
So far, China’s response to Russia’s invasion has disappointed many in the American foreign policymaking community. China’s response may not be prudent, never mind justifiable—I also wish it would use its power to constrain Russia—but it was predictable, for three reasons: China’s past record on Russian interventions; the well-known friendship between Xi and Putin; and the ongoing “Cold War Two” between America and China.
At the start of the war, there was never a real chance that China would break its past positions on Russian foreign policy interventions. China did not technically acknowledge the annexation of Crimea in 2014, but neither did it condemn Russian actions. Then, as today, China abstained on UN resolutions condemning Russian aggression. (Russia vetoed or voted against them). China’s messaging, in 2014 and today, blames the West and accuses it of hypocrisy based on false equivalence. For example, in 2014, Chinese commentators noted how the West applauded independence referenda in Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltic republics in 1991 in the waning days of the Soviet Union. Why wouldn’t the West then support Crimea’s referendum in 2014 to leave Ukraine? During the Syrian civil war, China continued to support Russia by joining it in vetoing a 2017 UN resolution to condemn the Assad regime for using chemical weapons against its own people.
At a personal level, Xi Jinping has found in Putin a partner with a shared vision of taking on America and what they term “western” concepts of human rights, focused on individual freedom and liberal forms of self-government. Both are obsessed with the collapse of the Soviet Union and blame the West for stoking color revolutions that championed liberal forms of democracy (including the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine). Xi’s first foreign visit was to Russia in 2013, and, as is often noted, Putin and Xi have met 38 times since then. Xi’s first post-pandemic face-to-face meeting with a foreign head of state was the now-famous February 4 summit in Beijing at which Putin and Yi agreed that “friendship between the two states has no limits.” (This was also the meeting at which, if Western intelligence is accurate, the Chinese leadership was informed of Russia’s plans to invade Ukraine.)
Most observers are less aware of what the American foreign policy analyst Yun Sun has termed Xi’s “Russia complex.” Xi deeply admires Putin as a bulwark against western liberalism. Like many Chinese leaders today whose early youth in the 1950s was influenced by China’s emulation at the time of the Soviet Union, Xi harbors a nostalgia for a time of Chinese solidarity with the Soviet Union against America. (In fact, the Sino-Soviet partnership was anything but equal and friendly).
Tellingly, Xi was too young to ever go to study abroad in the Soviet Union, as many of his predecessors did. The leaders who engineered China’s economic reforms did so knowing well the flaws in the Soviet system, which they watched collapse in 1991. Xi’s affection for Putin and for Russian power means that he’s inclined to view Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in a favorable light, regardless of what his intelligence services present to him about the course of the war in Ukraine.
Chinese officials and analysts who are far less enamored of Putin and Russia than Xi Jinping still view the Ukraine war from the perspective of the larger U.S.-China confrontation. The Russian invasion of Ukraine, to a typical foreign policy analyst in China, takes place in the context of ongoing American sanctions and tariffs against China: a trade war started by the Trump administration in 2017 but with no signs of ebbing under Biden; American-led sanctions over the internment and cultural genocide of Uyghurs in Xinjiang; vocal American support of protests in 2014 and 2019 against Beijing’s sovereignty over Hong Kong (and more American sanctions following Xi’s crackdown in Hong Kong); and longstanding U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan along with greater American diplomatic support for Taiwan—plus persistent American suspicion of the “Chinese lab leak” origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has also prompted speculation that Xi might seize the opportunity to make good on threats to “reunite” Taiwan with China. If anything, Russia’s disastrous military operations in a land invasion reinforce the old truism that elegant and detailed invasion plans drawn up over many years fall apart in the first hours of wars. An amphibious operation against Taiwan poses exponentially greater obstacles. But no one knows yet how Chinese military planners are thinking about Taiwan in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And for the next year at least, Xi Jinping is far more occupied with plans to extend his terms as Party Secretary and PRC President, at historic enclaves of the Communist Party in fall 2022 and the National People’s Congress in spring 2023. Not to mention domestic concerns over China’s stagnating economy and the disturbing outbreak of new waves of COVID-19 cases in Chinese cities.
Many ordinary Chinese citizens, as well as foreign policy elites, have concluded that America is China’s number one national security threat. From their standpoint, any country that confronts the United States deserves at least tacit support. And any regional conflict with the likelihood of drawing away American power from China’s neighborhood in the Western Pacific, or fragmenting America’s allies, is worth sustaining. In short, the core question at the heart of every Chinese policy option on Ukraine is: how will this choice help us in our ongoing disputes with the United States?
Some Chinese foreign policy scholars, well aware of how far they’re allowed to go in criticizing their government’s choices, have in fact openly disagreed with China’s decision to offer tacit, and potentially overt, support to Russia. The widely-cited essay by Hu Wei, the vice-chair of a think-tank affiliated with the State Council (the home of China’s cabinet ministries), was removed from the think-tank’s website after its publication on March 5, but it remains available on social media platforms in China.
While Western commentators often point to the essay as evidence of opposition to Xi’s support of Putin, a close reading reveals Hu’s main concern. He argues that China should not support Putin, because it puts China at great risk of being drawn into a potential Russian war against NATO. It also risks China being isolated and facing on its own (especially if Putin were to fall from power) a newly-energized U.S.-led coalition of western liberal democracies. Hu Wei thinks that the Russian invasion of Ukraine, regardless of whether it results in a victory or defeat for Russia, has “weakened anti-Western forces” and created a new coalition lined up with America, at great expense to China’s security posture.
During his March 18 meeting with Xi, Biden conveyed America’s threats to impose “secondary sanctions” on Chinese entities (especially banks), should China actively offer Russia military and economic assistance. We should expect immediate leaks of U.S. intelligence if they detect any attempts by Chinese entities to ease trade and financial flows to Russia. As the Russian economy and consumers feel the bite of the sanctions, Xi will hear pleas from his friend Putin to come to Russia’s aid. That will put the “friendship with no limits” to a high-stakes test.
For now, Xi and his advisors have probably calculated that it is better to sit back and wait for tensions to emerge between America and Europe over hosting Ukrainian refugees, coping with skyrocketing energy prices, and providing aid to low-income countries that will face life-threatening grain shortages. For now, China can continue to call for peace talks, abstain on UN resolutions, and help Russia with energy transfers and sanctions workarounds that land just short of American red lines triggering secondary sanctions on China.
But for the longer term, the risks increase that China will be drawn into the conflict on Russia’s side.
Mark W. Frazier is a Professor of Politics at The New School, where he also serves as Academic Director of the India China Institute. He is also the author of The Power of Place: Contentious Politics in Twentieth-Century Shanghai and Bombay (Cambridge University Press, 2019).