The approach of China towards the Ukraine crisis

The approach of China towards the Ukraine crisis

By Shaoyu CEN

Strategy analyst based in Shanghai, China

Though the diplomats of China have repeated the official stand on Ukraine crisis over and over again, the United States and Ukraine are still trying to push China to join the sanctions on Russia. Mykhailo Podolyak, a close adviser to the President of Ukraine, even posted on twitter and demanded, “the West must explain to Beijing how $1.6 trillion differs from $150 billion.”

Only one option

While China’s stand is being distorted or even concealed from the audience by most of the western media, Qin Gang, the ambassador of China to the United States, reiterated it in The Washington Post on Mar 15:

On Ukraine, China’s position is objective and impartial: The purposes and principles of the U.N. Charter must be fully observed; the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, including Ukraine, must be respected; the legitimate security concerns of all countries must be taken seriously; and all efforts that are conducive to the peaceful settlement of the crisis must be supported”.

Why does China take such a position? Because it’s the only option. I will explain every sentence in the statement made by Qin Gang:

  1. The U.N. system is still the keystone of the current international regimes and the most important platform for negotiation. Especially the non-western powers such as China, India, Turkey, Brazil and others can work together to confine the interventions from the West on their regional issues. As one of the founding members, China has no reason to sabotage the U.N. system.
  2. China hasn’t completed the reunification itself, hence “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries must be respected” is definitely not rhetoric. No matter how deep China and Russia develop their relations during these years, China has never recognized the Independence referendum of Crimea.
  3. On the other hand, China empathizes with the “legitimate security concerns” of Russia. The U.S. has established many military bases not only around Russia but also around China. It has deployed aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines and anti-missile systems on territories close to China. The last one of these is never a simple ‘defense’ system but a crucial weapon to weaken the rival’s nuclear counter strike ability and break the nuclear balance. Recently, the U.S. built the QUAD and AUKUS mechanisms that clearly targeted China, while NATO was also trying to intervene in the South China Sea disputes.

Since exactly the West has pushed China and Russia into the similar circumstances, it is hard to imagine that China would join the sanctions imposed on Russia. If the Russian regime was toppled, as the West dreams, then China would bear more pressure. An old Chinese idiom says, “if the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold.”

4. China has benefited from a peaceful and stable international environment mainly through economic ties. The military operation and the following sanctions destabilized the global market. The land of China has been scorched many times throughout its long history, we do know well the miserable fates of civilians in a war. Sometimes Chinese people became the victims even in a ‘remote’ war. On May 7, 1999, NATO bombed Chinese embassy in the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and killed three Chinese journalists. In the Ukraine conflict, there were also casualties among the Chinese students.

The stand of China is understandable and quite predictable. It will neither praise or support the Russian operations nor join the sanctions. Russia has already showed its understanding and respect years ago by not pushing China to accept the change of Crimea. The West on the side is always refusing to even take a try to understand China.

Limited approaches

However, it is not easy to reach an agreement now. China alone could not bring the peace and the West has overestimated China’s influence on Russia, not to speak of that on European issues.

Firstly, the Ukrainian government is deeply influenced, if not ‘infiltrated’ or ‘controlled’ by the West and especially the U.S. The stand of Ukraine could be directed away from its long-term interests during the negotiation. Killing a representative of Ukraine on Mar 5 could be viewed as a kind of warning. Under such circumstances, China could only advocate for the peace negotiation and provide some channels, but hardly drive the stands of the two parties closer.

Secondly, China could not change the Russian course, either. Russia and China do have somewhat ‘trusted relations’, but these are limited. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russia genuinely tried to hug the West. Though it was pushed back again and again, it kept doing so before it was eventually forced into a corner. Meanwhile, China was nobody, just the biggest developing country with almost nothing for Russia to admire.

Even after China’s growth could not be neglected any longer, Moscow still maintained some distance to Beijing. Russia and China shared 4000km long borders, it was truly a huge success to solve all the territorial disputes between them, but some Russians were always worried that Chinese would emigrate into the Far East part of Russia and/or control the economy there. In the One Belt One Road initiative, central Asia is such an important part that China would inevitably deepen its relations with the ‘Stan Countries’. Worrying about Chinese ‘expansion’ in the former Soviet regions, Russia kept being highly vigilant until not long ago.

The seemingly deep trust between Russia and China doesn’t have a long past and was partly catalyzed by the West. Therefore, neither China nor Russia would waste the hard-won mutual trust to please the West.

Thirdly, the Russian leaders fully understand the international structure and know well that China has no other choices in the situation as we discussed above. Even if China were willing to use any economic measurements as a leverage to threaten Russia to stop the military operations, it would be only viewed as a bluffing. 

Finally, China actually doesn’t have many diplomatic resources in Europe. When China focused on the economic ties with European countries, there were always noises on some political issues. The disputes on Xinjiang led to the mutual sanctions between China and EU, and eventually caused freezing of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment. When China tried to deepen the relations with eastern European countries, it was accused of dividing Europe. When China supported the strategic independence of Europe, some countries followed the U.S. to send their warships to the South China Sea. When Lithuania violated the one-China principle, China could hardly receive support from Europe. 

Let’s be realistic. China could even not fix the issues in Europe for itself, or make the West sincerely listen to it. Why does the West expect that China could play a key role in the peace talks? They probably just demand from China to impose pressure on Russia unilaterally, but will that really help to reach a stable long-term peace? Russia won’t buy it.

China’s wise approaches are to keep the mutual-trust with Russia and to prevent Russia from collapsing. After all, a nuclear great power that fell into chaos could be the worst nightmare to the human beings.

China will also keep providing humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Some western countries sent light weapons into Ukraine. They could not help stop a modernized comprehensive offensive, but only add military and civil casualties on both sides.

As for the peace talks, China should support and coordinate with the regional powers closer to Russia and Ukraine, such as Turkey and Israel. In this simple but realistic way, the negotiating parties have already made some progresses. If China was forced to take a different stand, it will make the situation more complicated and the negotiation probably fruitless.

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June 2024