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China’s diplomatic balancing act in the Ukraine conflict

By Cora Francisca Jungbluth, Bertelsmann Stiftung
Cora Francisca Jungbluth, Senior Expert International Trade and Investment at the Bertelsmann Stiftung.

The war between Russia and Ukraine comes at a time that could not be worse for China: The Olympic Winter Games were shadowed by Covid-19 and did not bring a similar soft-power effect as the Summer Games did in 2008. China’s economy is under pressure due to the pandemic, the unsolved problems in the property sector, and the long-known downsides of China’s heavily export-biased growth model. And ahead of this year’s key political event, the 20th Party Congress, China’s leadership needs stability above all – social, political, economic, national, and international stability. Russia’s war, which China plays down by referring to it as the “Ukraine Situation (乌克兰局势),” makes it more difficult to maintain this stability.

Even though it seems that senior Chinese leaders or even Xi Jinping himself may have had some knowledge about Russia’s imperial plans, it is hard to believe that they were fully aware of the extent of what was going to happen. Maybe China even underestimated how far Russia would really go and now has no intention of extending its friendship as an ally in a war.

China and Russia: no full-fledged ‘alliance of autocracies’ for now

Things looked different one month ago. After Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin met on February 4th in Beijing during the opening ceremony of the Winter Games announced a “friendship with no limits” and “no forbidden areas of cooperation,” one could have expected an “alliance of autocracies” even fit for war. Instead of fully and openly supporting Russia in its self-waged war, however, China has committed itself to equivocation: The Chinese leadership has repeatedly emphasized territorial integrity and respect for sovereignty, as enshrined in the UN charter, as the principles of China’s foreign policy, explicitly including Ukraine. When the United Nations Security Council issued a resolution against Russia, China did not join its “friend’s” veto as a permanent member but abstained, showing that their friendship indeed has its limits. On the sidelines of the National People’s Congress, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi made this point very clear, even drawing an analogy to Russia’s situation in Europe: “The real goal of the US Indo-Pacific strategy is to establish an Indo-Pacific version of NATO […].”

While committing to the UN charter regarding national sovereignty, China simultaneously displays a high level of understanding for Russian security concerns in Europe, especially its fears of NATO at its doorstep. China sees itself faced with a similar situation in the Indo-Pacific with more and more Western countries adopting national strategies for this region, the goal of which China suspects to be containment – just as Russia claims to be the case with NATO’s Eastern enlargement.

China, therefore, sees Russia as an important geopolitical partner against the US-dominated world order. The war will not change this in the long run. Still, in the short term, it adds reservation to the Sino-Russian relationship, even as Wang Yi called it “rock-solid” at his annual press conference on the sidelines of the NPC meeting.

China is treading on ever thinner ice in its relationship with the ‘West

After closely and sometimes incredulously watching China’s diplomatic juggling act during the Ukraine crisis over the past weeks, the West is getting increasingly impatient. Every time one thinks one hears China take a clear position in Russia’s favor (or not) in Chinese official’s statements on the “Ukraine situation,” it slips away through some side door, leaving open multiple interpretations of the stance China may or may not take in the end. The oxymoron “pro-Russian neutrality” has been used by some observers to describe this tactic.

While Russia certainly is important for China from a geopolitical point of view, China has little to gain from Russia in economic terms. Russia mainly offers raw materials, which are important, yes, but not impossible to substitute and certainly have no unique selling point. From an economic perspective, the West, with its intense trade relations with China and its partially more difficult-to-substitute technologies, is critical for China. The US and EU alone (the core of the West) make up 25 percent of China’s trade volume, dwarfing Russia, at below three percent. As for inward FDI, they were among the top-5 origins of investment in the same year at slightly above five percent of the total.

Despite talks and attempts of decoupling, China is still, at least to some degree, dependent on its economic relations with the West to access foreign capital and specific know-how for its green and digital transformation, to sell its still abundant export goods to customers with high purchasing power and sustain much needed economic growth and stability. In short, China cannot allow a severe blow to its relationship with the West in the run-up to the 20th Party Congress later this year – and certainly not for Russia, no matter how full-bodied the Joint Declaration may sound.

Is there a ‘face-saving’ way out of the Ukraine crisis for China?

China’s dithering in the Ukraine crisis has already done some damage to its international image and will certainly overshadow Chinese attempts to take on a more active role. The longer the war continues with all its brutality and cruelty, the harder it gets for China to continue this diplomatic tightrope walking act. Moreover, economically speaking, China could easily end up on the losing side in this war, as the impact on the world economy and global supply chains, and thus for China, could be severe.

For the time being, a way for China to get out of the “Ukraine situation” in an, at least halfway, face-saving way seems to be to finally put into practice the “constructive role” it has repeatedly promised. Acting not so much as a direct mediator between the two sides, but rather by actually throwing its full economic weight on the scale vis-à-vis Russia and thus increasing the pressure on the latter to end the war or at least negotiate a reliable ceasefire. By doing this, China might still be able to actually play the role it claims for itself in the 21st century: that of a global superpower willing to live up to the responsibilities that come along with this role. China might even repair some of the damage inflicted upon its international reputation. At the time of finalizing this text, however, it does not seem that China is at this point – yet.

This article is an abridged version of the article “Caught between Russia and the West? China’s Struggle for a Position on Ukraine“, first published on the blog Europe’s Future of the Bertelsmann Stiftung on March 10, 2022.

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