Author: Xiaoli Guo, ANU
Since the start of the Russia–Ukraine crisis on 24 February 2022, questions about China’s stance on the conflict have proliferated. So far, China’s preference is clear — to not side with either country.
Assume that China did absolutely support Russia politically. Such a move may allow China to further deepen its diplomatic ties with Russia and is in line with the current Chinese strategic mindset that alliances should be formed with strong powers to ease pressure from the United States.
But from the Chinese perspective, this is not the right track to ensure stable development. China clearly prefers a multilateral international order with China, Russia, Europe and the United States being the four major powers to determine future world affairs. This is because no single actor out of the four can independently dominate current and future international relations and greater economic development is possible by avoiding zero-sum games.
Some analysts contend that it was the close alignment between Russia and China that prompted China to dismiss the fact that Russia ‘attacked’ Ukraine. According to China, there is still insubstantial evidence to suggest who instigated the conflict. The Chinese leadership seems to believe that the United States contributed to fanning the flame of the crisis by providing arms and ammunition to Ukraine.
Even if China were to concede that the crisis was triggered by Russian geopolitical ambition, Russia’s aggression could still be dismissed by Beijing, painting the crisis as the result of US provocation. China shows no indication that it wants to stand by the United States in condemning Russia.
But to side with Russia would undermine the overall stability and consistency of China’s diplomacy in the long run. There is limited capacity for Russia and China to accommodate each other given the complexity of their domestic and international agendas. If China and Russia formed a conventional alliance, China would incur a risk of falling into the swamp of a new Cold War, which would heighten tensions between China and the United States and intensify diplomatic confrontation with the West.
China’s economic interests in the European Union also deter any explicit siding with Russia. China’s vision of EU cooperation is based on proactive economic diplomacy, along with the Belt and Road Initiative and China–US strategic competition. With the international order increasing in flux amid intensifying geopolitical competition, China seeks to develop relations with Europe, acknowledging that economic cooperation with the European Union has been a top priority in China’s strategy.
China appreciates the European Union as a valuable strategic partner and a potential force to counteract US unipolar hegemony. Building rapport with leading European countries is an important principle guiding China’s geopolitical strategy. With China seeking stability in its relations with the European Union, to side with Russia would not promote China’s overall national interest. This perhaps explains why Chinese President Xi Jinping and Foreign Minister Wang Yi have repeatedly emphasised China’s neutral position in the Russia–Ukraine crisis in their conversations with senior EU officials.
China’s approach to the Russia–Ukraine conflict is also based on its understanding of the concept of sovereignty, which has played a central role in China’s own territorial concerns. China has serious concerns about territorial integrity due to its painful history, coupled with unresolved sovereignty disputes with neighbouring countries.
Many commentators are drawing parallels between the Russia–Ukraine conflict and China–Taiwan relations. To China, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is fundamentally different to the Taiwan issue, as China views Taiwan as an internal affair. But China is fearful of the possibility of the United States providing defensive weapons to Taiwan, with the United States also adopting a policy of strategic ambiguity in selling weapons and providing military aid to Ukraine. If China explicitly supports Russia’s incursion of Ukraine, then China’s sovereignty could easily fall victim to such acts in the future.
Given China’s sensitive and complex national interests, it is unlikely that Beijing will stand by Russia’s side over the Russia-Ukraine crisis, though China appears eager to demonstrate some level of solidarity with Russia. Yet the crisis is inherently unstable. As the conflict continues, mounting international pressure will put China at risk of being forced to unequivocally choose between Moscow and the West — which would inevitably lead to a strategic mishap for China.
Xiaoli Guo is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, and PhD member at the Australian Centre on China in the World, The Australian National University.
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