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If you sit between two chairs, you sit uncomfortably!

By Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik
Sinology Professor Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik

On October 12, 2022, the UN General Assembly held a vote on the annexation of the four territories partially occupied by Russia on the Russian-Ukrainian border. 143 countries voted in favor of the resolution, 35 countries abstained, and 5 countries, including Russia, of course, voted against it. China abstained from the vote. How could this happen, when the People’s Republic emphasized from the very first day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine that it considers the principle of sovereignty and territorial integrity to be indisputable? Would this vote not have been the moment for China to demonstrate its clear opposition to Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity?

A press conference held by the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in this regard: “We believe that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries must be respected, that the purposes and principles of the UN Charter must be observed, that the legitimate security concerns of all countries must be taken seriously, and that all efforts conducive to peaceful settlement of the crisis must be supported. As a responsible major country, China has all along been committed to promoting peace talks. We are never a bystander, and we would never add fuel to the fire, still less exploit the crisis.”

The Foreign Ministry’s statement is no more clear than the various statements we have heard since the first day of the war, which the US and EU countries have interpreted as the expression of China’s support for Russia. The statement is crafted from the same linguistic fabric as previous statements. Only the order has changed.

In the statement of the Foreign Ministry on February 24, 2022, the first point was the understanding for Russia’s approach, which was a reaction to the eastward expansion of NATO. This time, NATO’s eastward expansion is no longer mentioned, and instead only the legitimate security interests are referred to. However, this pro-Russian phrase comes after, not before, the phrase calling for the preservation of sovereignty and territorial integrity and supporting Ukraine. In the last sentence, China underlines its own position as a “responsible major country.” In the Chinese context, this means that anyone who takes a “middle” position is not neutral, but responsible. They are called upon to master a balancing act by sending positive signals to both sides so that neither side is hurt. For this reason, criticism is not appropriate either.

Diplomacy with Chinese characteristics

This form of diplomacy is familiar to those acquainted with Chinese history, which is characterized by the permanent balancing act between different factions at court. The fact that it is met with a lack of comprehension outside China is certainly not only due to ignorance, but also to the fact that a possible moderating role by China in future negotiations on ending the war is not desired by either the United States or Russia. So the question arises as to why China insists on this middle position?

China signed a treaty with Ukraine in 2013, which stipulates that the two countries will support each other in protecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of their respective countries. In the event of a nuclear threat, China assured Ukraine that it will take action in accordance with UN procedures. Ukraine is China’s main partner in the Belt and Road Initiative, and there is intensive cooperation between Ukrainian and Chinese engineers in developing China’s military capacity. China, in turn, is linked to Russia through a strategic partnership, which Xi Jinping in particular repeatedly praises and most recently flaunted to the world during Putin’s visit at the opening of the Olympic Games.

Furthermore, the CCP does not like to make political decisions that give a bad impression of the party’s analytical capabilities. Should it side with Russia and Russia turned out to be the loser, it would look very bad for the CCP and its judgment.

After all, we saw just recently that the top leadership of the CCP is divided. The third man in the state, Li Zhanshu, traveled to Moscow and spoke to members of the Duma behind closed doors. His remarks were recorded and leaked. This revealed that he expressed to Russian deputies China’s full understanding of Russia’s actions against Ukraine and announced that they were ready to coordinate with Russia. Around the same time, Xi Jinping attended the meeting of the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organization) in Samarkand. Xi had to leave the meeting early and was not seen for ten days thereafter, as, incidentally, was Mr. Li Zhanshu after his return from Moscow.

The other side of the political spectrum made its appearance when Foreign Minister Wang Yi gave a speech at the UN in which he spoke only about peaceful efforts. Russia and its concerns were not mentioned in a single sentence. The forces within the CP leadership that think differently than Mr. Li Zhanshu insist on the middle position as a compromise: When Li Zhanshu did not keep this compromise, it was probably assumed that Xi Jinping gave him the green light to do so. According to Chinese logic, however, even the Party Chairman must not deviate from a compromise once it has been reached. That is why Xi had to fly back home so soon.

China waits for the right opportunity

So far, the leadership of the PRC has kept a low profile regarding peace mediation. It waits for an opportunity to successfully intervene. But the time is not yet ripe. The level of suffering still needs to grow. Three scenarios are possible: The time will come when even the actually stronger party in an asymmetrical war will be so exhausted that it will seek negotiations before it is too late. This situation has not yet materialized, although statements on the need for negotiations have been heard repeatedly from Moscow in recent days. The main reason is that the Ukrainian side is not willing to negotiate at present, and the US also wants to keep the war going for as long as it takes to weaken Russia so that it cannot wage war in its neighborhood.

The second scenario is a war of attrition. It is a terrible lot for the soldiers on both sides and also for the civilian population, and although it should be avoided for this very reason, many historical examples show that the wear and fatigue of both sides can one day lead to a willingness to talk.

A third scenario remains, but it is not openly discussed in China: Due to inflation and energy shortages, people in the rich West as well as in the global South will sooner or later take to the streets, and conditions will significantly destabilize. In this situation, those involved only indirectly would beg for the war to end.

Regardless of which scenario occurs, China knows that it needs to keep its ace up its sleeve. It negotiates behind the scenes, chooses its words carefully, but it does not take a decisive step to the edge of the stage. After all, the ultimate goal is to gain from the situation: If China were to successfully involve itself in the negotiations, it would have strengthened its position as a responsible major power and positioned itself well on the global stage.

Susanne Weigelin-Schwiedrzik is a Professor of Sinology at the University of Vienna and Program Director China at the Center for Strategic Analysis. Her research focuses on history and historiography in China with an emphasis on contemporary history, analysis of domestic and foreign policy, and international relations with an emphasis on East Asia.


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