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China’s Policy in Ukraine Crisis: Significant Role, Insignificant Role-playing

The Ukraine crisis, beyond the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, has turned into an international crisis in which various actors play roles.
April 2022
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Khalil Shirgholami

The Ukraine crisis, beyond the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, has turned into an international crisis in which various actors play roles. China’s policy, as one important big international power, is of great importance in the face of this crisis and in setting relations with Russia and the west. In this short paper, we address these questions that How has China addressed this crisis? Is the probable new world order or the world order changes resulting from the Ukraine crisis favorable to China? Will this crisis accelerate China’s rise on the international stage?

 In the current crisis, the eyes of both sides involved, that is Russia and the west, have been on China. For both sides, what position China takes and what policy it adopts are extraordinarily important. In this crisis, China’s action and inaction are both important. In a sentence, China’s role in the crisis can be summarized as: significant role, insignificant role-playing. China has had and still has a potential major role and its stand or action is extraordinarily important, but it has played a marginal and insignificant role in the Ukraine crisis.

In his addresses in recent years and within the framework of his reflections on world management and China’s share in it, Xi Jinping, the Chinese President has repeatedly said that China wants to partner and cooperate with other countries in world management and construction of a world community based on a joint destiny. In doing so, China has taken steps. But in this crisis, Beijing was in a big dilemma between those values (including rejecting territorial violation) and the existing realities. The Ukraine crisis was a test of this claim of Xi jinping as well as an urgent test of the claim “Unrestricted Partnership” with Russia in the February 4 statement of Xi and Putin, during Putin’s trip to Beijing. The Chinese are experiencing tough conditions for both tests. On the other side, this crisis and its ensuing consequences have taught China tough lessons about the Taiwan issue and China’s future policy toward it, and despite some guesswork, the crisis has not brought an opportunity for China regarding Taiwan.

But what is China’s leaders’ mindset about the world order? For two thousand years, the Chinese leaders considered their country as a superior world power. More interestingly, over the last two thousand years from the China dynasty to the fall of the empire of the Qing dynasty, the Chinese emperors deemed themselves true rulers of the world, though never managing to build a world empire. This China-centered worldview has to a large extent shaped China’s view toward  global rule. We know that sunset and finally fall of China’s empire in the 19th century and early 20th century and the resulting developments up to the establishment of Communist China limited China’s influence on the world arena for one and a half century. But the dream of reviving world influence and power has been always haunting China.

Over the last two decades China has reemerged as a big power. Beijing is trying to recover its centrality in the international system and global governance institutions. Xi has asked that the global rules and norms also mirror China’s values and priorities.

  China has a dual strategy toward global governance. In fact, the dilemma and duality China is facing in the Ukraine crisis are reminiscent of its dual history and philosophical contradiction embedded in the general policy of this country. China backs those international norms and institutes that are in line with its goals and norms (World Bank, WTO, Paris Climate Accord), but in issues where China is at  odds with ( like human rights) Beijing tries to undermine those norms or strengthen the  substitute values ( like the shaping norms of Internet governance and Cyber governance). Since the last decade and in continuation of efforts to amend the international system, Beijing even created institutes and norms controlled by it, chief among them the “ One Belt, One Road” initiative.

 Within this framework, China has pursued both a defensive approach on the international stage (like in the Taiwan issue, human rights and sovereignty) and an offensive stance based on a fairer order. The Chinese emphasize the presumption that the US share and role must be reduced in the interest of China’s share and role. But the point is China, in the current situation, does not seek a total shakeup of the world order, because its leaders believe that China is not prepared for such a scenario.

Since the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, despite some initial wandering and domestic discussions among the ruling class, China’s decision was clear: It should not stand by neither Russia nor the west. A strategic priority for China in recent years has been to form alliances with other powers to find a way out of the US pressure and alliance making. The Chinese believe the height and weight of the current powers, especially the US, have to be reset in order for this balanced order to continue for a predictable future. China’s analysis is that the U.S.A.  is fanning the flames of Ukraine crisis to disrupt this balanced framework.

In the Ukraine crisis, China did not stand by America in condemning Russia, but its interest is not either in standing by Russia. The Chinese do not want to be in the same boat with Russia in a new cold war. The point is China’s analysis and assessment have had an evolutionary course in this crisis and undergone modifications along the developments. The most important development is that the extremist and emotional voices were gradually silenced inside China.

On the other side, China also has its economic and strategic considerations with Europe. It is extraordinarily important for China that Europe not get in line with the US’ Asian and anti-Chinese policies. Xi and Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, have in their meetings with the Europeans time and again stressed their impartiality in the Ukraine crisis. China’s stand in the crisis is also influenced by the issue of sovereignty. China harbors serious concerns about separatism in its own territory, and is worried about intensification of US arms support for Taiwan.

The outcome of all these considerations has been some sort of solidarity, not alliance, with Russia. It is vividly witnessed that China has given the media the green light to squarely stand behind Russia, but in practice nothing like that. China has been desperately trying to avoid a trap in which it has to choose between Russia and the west. The west also has been reluctant to put China in such a situation and their position on China’s role has been more of slogans; for example, the US accused China of arming Russia.

Despite pressures inside and outside that want Beijing to review its relations with Russia, it is unlikely that we see an about-face in China’s policies. On one hand, abandoning Russia or sticking to it, does not solve China’s main security challenge, i.e. the US. On the other hand, domestic developments are at a critical juncture. The 20th Communist Party’s assembly is ahead in fall and consolidating his historic deconstructionism and start of the 3rd term of Xi’s leadership are of paramount importance for him and his party. Xi has to appear successful for advancing this goal, and presently the Ukraine crisis, domestic economic challenges and the corona challenge and urban lockdowns have stirred his mental calm. In fact, China is not domestically in a situation to bear the burden of a major pivot in its policies. The current political conditions leave no room for Beijing to take risks.

However, the Ukraine crisis has had some benefits for China. This crisis has put the US in the Chinese policy or Russian Policy dilemma, which is favorable to China. On the other hand, a Russia weakened by war and sanctions, but not defeated and broken, is desirable to China. Such a Russia becomes a satellite of China and economically dependent on it.

Russia’s fragile situation in the war has to some extent influenced China’s equations, but it will not strongly impact on the long term equations (China favors an economically dependent Russia which is rich in resources). Apart from the diplomatic and propaganda aspect, China has not done much for Russia. Instead of trying to salvage Russia from the sanctions, China has tried to stay in the safe sidelines and at the same time criticize the sanctions. But there is no doubt in harsher conditions China can at least provide a lifeline to Russia’s economy.

By watching the west’s reaction against Russia, the bitter and pressing lesson of the Ukraine crisis for China is that returning Taiwan by force is not possible in the near future. China has become greatly disturbed by the US and Europe’s show of integrity in the crisis. The American and European bond against China, which did not realize in Biden’s efforts within the Indo-Pacific framework, have come true now, and this is a nightmare for China. Another lesson with a look to future is that Beijing will accelerate other actions for more independence from west’s technological and financial systems and resources. And finally the third lesson is that China will learn from Russia’s mistakes on the battleground, and in the intelligence and ethical war.

In a summary, China is not a fan of changing the current international order influenced by the Ukraine crisis, and is not prepared for such a development. Disrupting the current order in the interest of one side is not to the benefit of China. China itself cannot take a large leap because of this development, because the Ukraine crisis at the same time brought opportunities and threats for Beijing. It is unlikely that the crisis prompt China into taking a large leap, because China is not ready to take all the costs of such a trend. Finally, the author is of the belief there has been too much reading into China’s equations-studying and views about this crisis, and though all parties have set their eyes on China, Beijing has failed to be an influential and development-making actor on the stage.

 Khalil Shirgholami, Senior Expert at IPIS  

 (The opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of the IPIS)

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