Europe is watching closely how China responds to the war in Ukraine. During their recent meetings with the Chinese leadership, EU leaders called on China to use its close relations with Russia to support efforts to end the bloodshed in Ukraine. On April 28, the German Bundestag was more direct, adopting a resolution that, among other provisions, accused China of endorsing the war and warned that efforts to undermine sanctions or supply Russia with weapons would be met with more economic and personal sanctions. As these concerns demonstrate, the choices that China makes with respect to Ukraine could further damage its already fraught relations with Europe for years to come.
What direction might China take moving forward? Can Europe, working with likeminded partners, still influence Beijing’s choices? It’s well known that China views Russia as a key partner in its geopolitical competition with the United States, but domestic factors shaping much of Beijing’s current thinking on Ukraine are less well understood. It’s worthwhile, therefore, to examine China’s domestic politics for possible answers to these questions.
Partnership with Russia indispensable
The Communist Party has two main long-term domestic goals: ensuring the legitimacy of one-party rule and modernizing the country to reach the development levels of the world’s most advanced economies. Officials are straightforward that these goals are intricately linked since they view economic modernization as crucial for the party’s legitimacy. Officials are equally straightforward in their assessment that the United States has the capacity, and the intention, to disrupt China’s efforts to achieve these goals. This became a near consensus view during the Trump Administration, and views of US intentions have only hardened under President Biden.
Most Chinese policymakers still see their country as the more vulnerable player in geopolitical competition with the United States, even as confidence is growing that time is working in Beijing’s favor. For these reasons, Beijing views its partnership with Russia as indispensable to advance not only its geopolitical goals, but also to mitigate an existential risk domestically. The ties to Russia may endanger China’s relations with the West, but the leadership clearly still deems the threat posed by America to be greater.
Europe’s key role
Can the West influence this threat assessment? China still relies on economic interdependence with the West for its modernization goals, so it will calibrate its stance on the war to reduce the risk of incurring the types of sanctions that Western countries have imposed on Russia. Yet to get China to move further the strategic distrust at the heart of the heart of the relationship between the United States and China must be addressed. Of course, the heavy lifting for such an endeavor lies with Washington, but Europe has a key role to play. It must continue to coordinate its messaging to Beijing with the United States, and it can remind Washington of the benefits to the West of engagement with China with a nuance that is often missing in the deeply polarized political atmosphere in the United States.
There are of course risks to this approach. The EU leaders were clearly frustrated at China’s stance at the recent summit, with foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell calling the discussions a “dialogue of the deaf.” In the United States, some of the many critics of high-level strategic engagement with China may see an opening to weaken the Biden Administration politically. Beijing, for its part, may have ideas on how to manage distrust that the Western partners can’t accept. But not engaging China hasn’t proved to be any more effective than dialogue. Ultimately, the West can only fully test Beijing’s direction vis-à-vis Russia, and determine what paths are possible, through direct, determined and coordinated engagement
High threshold for change of course in Beijing’s policy on Russia
How likely is such an approach to succeed? That depends on the benchmark for success. At least three domestic factors point to continuity in Beijing’s approach to the war.
For one thing, evidence suggests that public opinion supports the current approach. Vladimir Putin’s narrative of an aggressive, deceitful West humiliating a weakened Russia resonates with much of the Chinese public that now believes that the United States refuses to accept China as a peer power. Most Chinese don’t yet feel the costs of the war. If inflation spikes and
growth slows further, most people will probably blame the West, and not their leaders. China’s foreign policy experts are not of one opinion about Beijing’s stance on Ukraine, but it’s debatable how much influence the proponents of a change in course actually have.
Secondly, China’s highly personalized approach to its relations with Russia is evidence of its commitment to its current policy. Domestic political narratives link the deepening of the “no limits” relationship to the personal bonds between Xi and Putin. Because of this direct association with Xi, the threshold for any overt modification of Beijing’s Russia policy will be exceedingly high.
Stability is in the foreground
Finally, China’s political calendar influences its tolerance for policy changes. The Communist Party Congress, which takes place every five years, will be held in the autumn. Officials traditionally become more conservative, and policymaking more cautious, in the run-up to the congress. Even Xi’s re-election to a third five-year term as party leader, an expected outcome of the congress that will break with loosely institutionalized term limits, isn’t making the party any less cautious. Against the backdrop of uncertainties caused by slowing economic growth, resurgent COVID, and the Ukraine war, the party has announced that “stability” – which also means caution in Chinese policymaking – is paramount as it prepares for the congress.
None of these factors suggest that an evolution of China’s stance is impossible, however. It’s worth the risk to explore the boundaries of China’s current approach via diplomacy, as China isolated on the side of Putin’s Russia cannot be the West’s preferred scenario for the future. But the West must expect any changes to China’s current direction to be piecemeal, and possibly so subtle that outsiders may easily overlook them. A policy shift could also assume the form of planned actions not taken, such as forsaking the delivery of weaponry to Russia. Given China’s view of its interests, such outcomes should be viewed as a victory for diplomacy.
William Klein is a Consulting Partner at Finsbury Glover Hering, based in Berlin, and a non-resident senior associate at the Freeman Chair in China Studies of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC. A retired member of the US diplomatic corps, he served as Acting Deputy Chief of Mission of the US Embassy in Beijing from 2019 to 2021.