In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, in China, as elsewhere, various stakeholders are attempting (often in vain) to find a greater meaning behind Russia’s actions, to propose possible paths towards ending the war, and to gauge and evaluate the geopolitical consequences that will emerge from this epochal event. And in China, as elsewhere, the headlines are piling up, while official statements attempt to manoeuvre through an endless stream of horrific images, climbing casualty counts, and wholesale destruction.
Jan Turowski directs the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Beijing Office.
Translated by Gegensatz Translation Collective.
Although Western media channels have been speculating about whether China might have received prior notice of Moscow’s plans, all signs point towards Beijing having been completely caught off guard by the turn of events. The vast majority of Chinese experts on international politics found it inconceivable that Russia would actually launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and were just as shocked as many Europeans at the Russian onslaught.
The official statements of the Chinese ministry of foreign affairs — otherwise exceedingly disciplined and precise in its communications — were contradictory, defensive, and above all, taciturn. Combined with China’s voting record on the matter in the United Nations Security Council (where China did not vote with Russia but abstained), this suggests that China’s leadership was late in realizing the true scale of the conflict and the extent of the dilemma that Russia’s war created for the People’s Republic of China. It would seem that China’s geopolitical position, and as such, the role China will play in this conflict — be it by design or by force — is a far cry from being settled.
In the current debate on both state and social media, despite all the censorship filters, it is possible to discern a number of lines in the quest to define this position. The arguments and assessments often overlap, and are constantly characterized by equivocating language, and the opinions of official and unofficial channels often coincide.
On the One Hand, It’s Complicated
One of the main threads of this discussion has emphasized, on the one hand, the West’s complicity in the conflict, particularly the US. The US is accused of recklessly and repeatedly fanning the flames of the long-smouldering Ukraine crisis, and of at least consciously accepting the prospect of a proxy war.
Two weeks before the Russian invasion, the Global Times — the English-language version of the Communist Party paper Renmin Ribao, a pseudo-official mouthpiece for Beijing — published an editorial that argued that the “US’ intention is to urge Ukraine to ‘hold on’ and not ‘fall behind’ in its confrontation with Russia. ... Washington intends to instigate wars, in a bid to increase the legitimacy of NATO’s existence and the bloc’s internal cohesion to tie Europe — which has shown some signs of departing from Washington — more tightly to the US. ... One of Washington’s aims is to make Russia feel uncomfortable, but Ukraine is very likely to become the victim.”
According to Beijing, Russia has a legitimate right to resist Ukraine becoming a member of NATO. The official and endlessly repeated phrasing of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs is that “one country’s security cannot come at the expense of the security of another”. This phrase is almost identical with the Russian line.
Beyond the current crisis in Ukraine, however, the Chinese security and geopolitical establishment has expressed its dismay and disdain for years now about how incapable — and above all, unwilling — the US has been (as was the case during long phases of the Cold War) to try to understand the perspectives of their supposed enemies and how they perceive crises that affect them. The point of this kind of geopolitical or strategic empathy is not to accept the enemy’s position, but to understand it, in order to be able to defuse crises. Regardless of the divergent perspectives on NATO expansion, there were overwhelming indications that, right from the start, the Russian leadership was alarmed by this encirclement, and had repeatedly expressed these concerns.
Beijing would also have a lot to contribute on issues relating to policies of encirclement and containment. Especially since Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia”, the US has been attempting to forge new partnerships and military alliances in Asia, such as the “Quad” and AUKUS, which all share one prime objective: putting China in the crosshairs. Since the US Congress declared in 2019 that the “long-term strategic competition with China is America’s top priority”, on top of the country’s already immense military spending earmarked for the Asia-Pacific region, hundreds of millions of additional US dollars have been provided for all manner of hybrid confrontation, embargo, and isolation policies.
And yet, although the US now sees China as its primary enemy, Beijing has always stressed that Washington must respect China’s security interests and “red lines”; — they don’t have to be “best friends”, but in order to collectively tackle the central challenges facing humanity, there needs to first of all be something like a “geopolitical ceasefire”.
The notion that the US are attempting to also turn Asia into a volatile crisis zone in which multiple lines of conflict and stirred-up crises not only allow new and old allies to invite US intervention but can also escalate rapidly at any time is a widely held belief in China, and not a mere product of Beijing’s propaganda machine. While the war was escalating in Ukraine, the Chinese public watched on in bewilderment at what they saw as the new provocations of high-level American delegations travelling to Taiwan.
It has long been Beijing’s view that the international order that emerged in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union — and in which the West, led by the US, possessed an almost unlimited monopoly on geopolitical leadership and military activity — is no longer reflective of reality (in no small part due to the rise of China). Beijing stresses that it no longer provides a system of global security in which the security interests of all countries are equally represented. Accordingly, it maintains that this world order, arranged around a single centre of power, ought to make way for one with multiple centres.
According to most Chinese security experts, Russia was to play a central role in China’s ideal image of a world with multiple centres of power, both as a counterbalance to the US and as a potential ally to Beijing — even more so given that other important players, such as India and Japan, have already aligned themselves with the US. Against this backdrop, a number of shared values — in particular their rejection of the Western order in which the US claims the sole leadership role — have led to a continual rapprochement between China and Russia in recent years, and both states have coordinated and deepened their cooperation in various fields. But the vision of an alternative, multi-centred world order is being brought to an abrupt end by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and cooperating with Russia is becoming a major liability for China.
On the Other Hand, It’s a Disaster
That said, the debate in China is just as heavily characterized by a set of competing interests. China has always placed the utmost importance in its core foreign policy principle of “protecting the sovereignty and integrity of all states and not interfering in internal matters”. In the face of the images coming out of Ukraine — which in China, too, dominate all forms of media — it long ago became impossible to whitewash this human rights violation by speaking of a “special military operation”.
There had already been a palpable diplomatic distance between the two countries around Russia’s earlier military forays, such as its intervention in Syria or the annexation of Crimea (which China to this day has not officially recognized). And even when it came to Russia’s military intervention in Kazakhstan earlier this year, Beijing’s support was notably reserved. Despite China’s sympathy for Russia’s legitimate security concerns, it sees the human rights violation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine as unjustifiable. Beijing simply cannot support the war.
On top of this is the fact that China has also maintained good relations with Ukraine for years. Though the relationship has always been marked by ups and downs, China has become one of Ukraine’s biggest trade partners, particularly when it comes to agriculture. One third of China’s corn imports, for example, have come from Ukraine in recent years. China is also a purchaser of Ukrainian nuclear reactor parts and arms.
Additionally, Ukraine is an important member and a key geographical node in China’s Silk Road Initiative. Since the invasion, more than 6,000 Chinese citizens have had to be evacuated, which has been a topic of critical debate on social media, both with respect to Russia, which is seen as having abused China’s cooperation, and with respect to the Chinese government itself. Setting aside the horror of the war, Beijing can have no interest at all in an ongoing destabilization of Ukraine and the entire region.
The criticism that is most sympathetic to Moscow questions the tactical prudence of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, which has completely isolated Russia internationally and cannot possibly bring any benefit. Much more frequently, the debates betray a palpable irritation over Moscow’s tendency towards “adventurism” and over Putin’s misguided “strongman politics”.
But more than anything else, China is becoming painfully aware that the turning point that the Ukraine war represents for world politics brings with it the danger of a new, bi-centred world order, in which China finds itself in a forced alliance with Russia, whereby China would be the stronger partner, but would find itself facing off against (almost) every other country in the world.
That is precisely the scenario that China always wanted to avoid. In recent years, Beijing has stated time and again that it would welcome partnerships between the US and even its closest neighbours, so long as these were not formed explicitly in antagonism with China. Such a bloc-based constellation, where countries would have to decide to join one bloc or the other, would mean less security rather than more, and would stymie economic development in Asia as a whole.
As well as this, it seems to be dawning on security-policy circles in Beijing that the gradually formed alliance between China and Russia might not have been an incidental consequence of incompetent miscalculations and the US’s confrontational policies, but on the contrary, is the intended result of a global strategy pursued by the US. Western Europe, regardless of its political formation, will now, more than ever, function as a transatlantic wing of the United States in a new cold or perhaps even hot war between the two global power blocs. China’s hope that the EU might strive for strategic autonomy and limit American influence on the continent has now been dealt a definitive blow by the Russia-Ukraine war.
For China, this development is a diplomatic nightmare. How can Beijing distance itself from Russia without subjecting itself to the geopolitical hegemony of the US? How can Beijing maintain its relationship with Moscow, which China must maintain in one way or another (you can pick your friends, but not your neighbours), without damaging its relations with the EU?
The longer and deadlier the war in Ukraine becomes, the more confrontational the geopolitical situation becomes. And the bigger Beijing’s headache.
 The “Quadrilateral Security Dialogue” (Quad) is a strategic security dialogue between the US, India, Japan, and Australia.
 AUKUS is a trilateral security agreement for the Indo-Pacific region between Australia, the UK, and the US, which was announced on 15 September 2021. As part of the agreement, the US and UK will assist Australia in acquiring nuclear-powered submarines.