Pool photo by Alexei Druzhinin (New York Times)
People embracing each other in tears in train stations before parting ways, buildings being smashed to pieces by repeated bombings, and the graphic footage of Russian tanks entering Ukraine: since the Russian invasion of Ukraine started last Thursday, social media has been swamped with information about the war.
The world is watching closely as the war unfolds in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the role of Beijing during this geopolitical crisis is also in question.
As a close ally of Russia, where does China stand in this catastrophic geopolitical event? What are the actions that Beijing could initiate as the situation develops? Where will China be positioned in global politics after the war?
Before the storm
Given their historical and ideological backgrounds, China and Russia have long been strategic partners. Both treated with antagonism by the West in international affairs, the Kremlin and Beijing rely highly on each other in the field of global politics. Before the 2022 Winter Olympics commenced, Mr. Putin traveled to China and had a summit with Mr. Xi Jinping. The joint statement following the meeting reaffirmed that “there are no limits to the two countries’ relationship,” and the bond between the two countries remains firm and prominent.
Examining the motivations of Russia’s aggression, we know that the intention of Ukraine to join NATO plays an important role. Days before the invasion of Ukraine began, China publicly backed Russia’s request that NATO stops admitting new members, a gesture to prevent Ukraine and other pre-Soviet countries from joining the multilateral defense alliance or from seeking its protection. As such, one might assume that China would also support Russia’s aggression on Ukraine.
Nevertheless, as the tension between Ukraine and Russia continued to escalate, leaders across the world gathered to discuss possible solutions to tone down the tension between both sides, and China was no exception.
Essentially, a variety of different factors have shaped China’s response. Firstly, since 2019, China has become one of the biggest trade partners of Ukraine. The war is bound to severely impact the vision for bilateral commercial cooperation.
Moreover, during the 2022 Munich Security Conference, Mr. Wang Yi, Foreign Minister of China, reiterChina’s all-time attitude towards foreign affairs by stating that “the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of all countries should be respected and safeguarded.” This narrative came as no surprise as it is aligned with the theoretical approach of Beijing towards entities such as Xinjiang and Taiwan: no foreign forces should interfere in the domestic affairs of a sovereign nation.
Mr. Zhang Jun, China’s envoy to the UN, also stated in the UN “international disputes should be approached with peaceful means,” suggesting that both sides avoid full-scale conflicts by using diplomatic means.
Indirectly, but certainly, Russia’s prospect of an armed assault on Ukraine also put China into an uncomfortable position.
Since the invasion took place, numerous countries started imposing sanctions on the Kremlin. Beijing, au contraire, retains a relatively softer approach without inflicting any economic punishment on Russia. The Chinese authorities reiterate their intention to sustain normal trade and business with Russia.
More than once, Mr. Zhang addressed the UN Security Council, stating that China encourages the involved parties to exert necessary restraint. He also emphasized reaching a peaceful settlement through a diplomatic approach. Nevertheless, on the 25th of February, in a vote of the UNSC on deploring Russia for the military aggression on Ukraine, China abstained.
CNA Photo (Taiwan News)
On the 28th of February, when queried about Beijing’s attitude towards the war in Ukraine, Wang Wenbin, foreign ministry spokesperson, first clarified that China is not an ally of Russia during the current situation. Yet, he then moved on to stress that Beijing will not interfere in the matters as a third party.
It might be possible for Beijing to adopt this narrative to navigate its way in the tensions between the West and Russia. Yet, it is unknown for how long Beijing’s effort to appease different parties will remain feasible if the warfare prolongs.
Caught between Russia and the West
At this point, it is not too far-fetched to see the current crisis in Ukraine as a challenge for China and Russia’s relationship.
Long known as an ally of Russia in global politics, China was confronted by a dilemma with Russia’s recognition of the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk in the East of Ukraine.
Defending Russia at this point would violate China’s all-time claim that the integrity of a sovereign country should be respected and not interfered with by foreign forces. This alleged endorsement, by consequence, might provide the international community with more political ground to help secure the sovereignty of Taiwan and Xinjiang in the future. Furthermore, to what extent would Beijing be willing to sacrifice its cooperative agenda with the West by siding with Russia?
The pandemic is also a part of the broader picture. After the outbreak of COVID-19 and the ensuing allegations of cover-ups, China faced significant international backlash over transparency, information sharing, and its governance. As it attempts to regain international standing and credibility, supporting the Kremlin’s decision would make them the target of global skepticism yet again.
Reasonably, China should also be vigilant about the sanctions from the U.S. and Europe. The punishments imposed by the world governments have caused grave damages to the Russian economy. Will China be able to hold up if the West does the same to Beijing? In particular, many Chinese officials have properties and families abroad. Sanctions in the form of freezing of assets and bans on VISA issuance would certainly be of great impact on many in the country.
Nonetheless, as China partially shares its borders with Russia, what would be the geopolitical consequences and military threats imposed by Russia if China ceases being a loyal ally to the Kremlin? Given the historical border disputes between Russia and China, one cannot overlook the possibility of another escalated military clash in the region. In addition, China also has to take its considerable dependence on Russian natural resources into consideration.
Any further prolongation of the war in Ukraine will only drag China more deeply into an uncomfortable position.
The war between Russia and Ukraine is of particular interest to the people of Taiwan.
Many news reports and tweets are drawing parallels between Taiwan and Ukraine— both neighboring authoritarian regimes that use ethnic homogeneity as the main justification for denying their independence. An abundance of nationalist comments on the Twitter-like platform Weibo also appears to be perpetuating pro-Russia narratives, claiming that it is prime time to launch military action against Taiwan as the West is in chaos.
In the tweet below, the account argues that “Today’s Russia is tomorrow’s China when it takes over Taiwan by force, so the Russians have to win.”
Or this tweet states that “The U.S. delegation arrives in Taiwan today for a visit. What about it? Do they want to see Taiwan get the same treatment as Ukraine?”
Currently, many in Taiwan are worried that the invasion of Ukraine could serve as an example for China. If this can happen to Ukraine, a clearly-defined, independent, undisputed sovereign state, Beijing would only be emboldened to invade Taiwan after Putin’s actions in Ukraine.
On the first of March, the visit of the U.S. delegation to Taiwan further implied the fragility of peace in the Taiwan Strait under the current geopolitical context. Given how the Pacific Front of World War II commenced with Japan launching a sudden attack on Pearl Harbor while Europe was embroiled in war, the world should also observe closely the political developments in the Taiwan Strait in the near future.
Eyes on China
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the first geopolitical crisis in recent history faced by the Chinese Communist Party’s China that has actual consequences for the country.
To date, the Chinese authorities still refuse to consider the military action of the Kremlin an “invasion.” The speed with which Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to astound the world, however, no one can foresee the end to this tragic crisis. While it might be a bit early to predict the outcome, it is, however, worth noting whether China will take a firmer and more determined stand.
Perhaps, at this point, the Chinese government should really reflect inward upon the founding essence of its society – Confucianism, a philosophy that guides the people of the Chinese culture in their daily lives, likewise when it comes to politics and foreign affairs. Ren（「仁」） and Yi（「義」）, in particular, indicate the importance of being righteous and virtuous. Now is prime timing for China to demonstrate these qualities and make the right choice for humanity, showing the world how China is ready for more profound and constructive cooperation with other players of global politics.