Why China Is Struggling to Deal With Russia’s War in Ukraine
By Ian Johnson
The invasion has put China in an awkward position. China and Russia have close economic ties, but a pillar of Chinese foreign policy is respecting countries’ territorial integrity.
China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has released a series of stonewalling statements. It hasn’t endorsed the invasion, but also hasn’t condemned it. The ministry has repeated that the situation is complex, sanctions are useless, and the West is largely responsible for the war because it backed Russia into a corner by expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) into zones formerly under Russian control. Even though China wants to position itself as essentially neutral and advocates dialogue, its positions are actually a remarkable defense of Russia and reflect strengthening China-Russia ties.
China and Russia are each other’s closest major partner. Their economies are complementary: China is a manufacturing power but resource poor, so it needs Russian energy, while Russia has enormous energy reserves but needs investment and help broadening its economic base. Each has serious human rights and foreign policy issues but ignores the other’s troubles. China has also been a major buyer of advanced Russian weaponry.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin appear to have strong personal ties. For example, the two discussed Ukraine during a phone call on Friday, with Xi simply stating that negotiations are desirable. There was no indication that Xi criticized Putin.
At the same time, China knows supporting Russia’s invasion would seriously damage its already strained relationships with the wealthy democracies that are its main trading partners, such as the United States, European Union countries, and Japan. Ties with these countries are already as bad as they have been since China began its policy of reform and opening in the 1970s. If China sided with Russia, such as by offering economic relief or agreeing to veto sanctions in the UN Security Council, then it would be hard to salvage those ties. Instead, most wealthy democracies would perceive China and Russia as being in a 1950s-style communist alliance. This would make it almost impossible for many countries to restart any form of engagement with China.
This dilemma is reflected in how the war is discussed on Chinese social media. On the most influential platform, WeChat, a senior Chinese media editor said China should voice its “understanding and a certain amount of support” for Russia because the United States ultimately pushed it to invade, but that China shouldn’t provoke Western countries by overtly supporting Russia. On the other hand, some Chinese commentators have put the blame squarely on Putin, with one saying the war exemplified Russia’s failure to modernize. Others described what they said was heroic Ukrainian resistance, while one called the war “unjust” and condemned male Chinese commentators who made sexist remarks about Ukrainian women.
Could China’s economic relationship with Russia make sanctions ineffective?
It is unlikely that China immediately offers aid to Russia, but it could easily become the long-term buyer of gas and other resources that Russia can’t sell to Western countries. On Friday, it announced that it would loosen restrictions on Russian grain imports, but this had been in the works for some time.
Overall, changing the flow of resources will not happen overnight. Pipelines take many years to construct, so China can’t suddenly step in to buy sanctioned goods, such as natural gas that would have been carried by the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. But in the coming years, China can offset sanctions by becoming a no-questions-asked buyer of Russian resources.
Could Putin’s invasion embolden Xi to increase pressure on Taiwan?
China’s foreign ministry has said clearly that Ukraine and Taiwan are not the same. While China views Taiwan as an inalienable part of its territory, it considers Ukraine a fully sovereign country. But on a deeper level, the logic is similar.
Both the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation are descendants of large, continental, multiethnic empires. The twentieth century saw China lose Mongolia and Taiwan in the aftermath of the Qing dynasty’s collapse. China no longer claims Mongolia, but it still wants Taiwan and hasn’t ruled out taking it by force. Russia fared worse when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. It lost most of Central Asia, as well as territories in Europe, including the Baltic states, many parts of the Caucasus, Belarus, and Ukraine. Russia seems to have given up on recapturing Central Asia (content, perhaps, to have loyal strongmen run those countries) but clearly wants segments of its European territories back.
Russia’s situation is something nationalists in China can clearly identify with. So if Russia can grab chunks of Ukraine or install a puppet regime and withstand economic sanctions, that could embolden nationalists in China to look to Taiwan and think they could do the same.
Is the United States likely to work with China in responding to the invasion?
In an ideal world, the United States would be able to restart high-level dialogue with China. It could then remind Beijing that its future is as a global leader, engaging and competing with advanced countries, not slumming with energy-state autocracies such as Russia.
But there is little hope of this happening, because ties between Washington and Beijing remain too frayed by recent developments. The current situation will likely persist, with Beijing taking potshots from the side while other countries try to save Ukraine’s autonomy.