China stands by Russia, amid international fury over Ukraine

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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been condemned by the Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres, who warned it could provoke “the worst war since the beginning of the century.” China’s response is far more ambivalent. Duncan Bartlett, a Research Associate from the SOAS China Institute, explains Beijing’s position and answers key questions.  

Has China supported or encouraged the Russian invasion of Ukraine?

I doubt that Beijing wanted Russia to invade its neighbour and spark an international crisis. Nevertheless, I notice that China is avoiding being openly critical of the move. For example, Zhang Jun, the Chinese ambassador to the United Nations called on all parties involved in the crisis to remain restrained and avoid escalating the situation any further. 

He said: “China believes that the door to a peaceful solution to the Ukraine issue has not been completely closed.” He also said China will continue to promote peace and talks in its own way. 

Zhang Jun Photo: Xinhua

Does that mean China intends to take a diplomatic role?

China gives the impression it understands why Russia invaded Ukraine and has used the event as an opportunity to level criticism at the West. For example, it says the world needs to appreciate Russia’s security concerns. 

But I think there are mixed messages from Beijing. Before the invasion, Chinese Foreign Affairs Minister Wang Yi told the Munich Security Conference that the security of one country should not be achieved at the expense of others and that regional security should not be based on strengthening blocs. That sounded like a warning to Russia not to launch an attack.

China says that the Ukraine issue has a complex history and the current situation is the result of “the combined effect of various factors.” However, most other countries maintain that this is a clear example of the invasion of a sovereign nation in breach of international law.

In terms of strengthening blocs, Joe Biden said that Vladimir Putin has “much larger ambitions than Ukraine… He wants to, in fact, re-establish the former Soviet Union. That’s what this is about.”

So are Russia and China allies?

They are not formal allies, although they do see eye-to-eye on a number of issues and there is an understanding between China and Russia that they will support each other in times of trouble. They describe their relationship as a “comprehensive strategic partnership”.

In January 2022 China and Russia signed a treaty that included an ambition to build “political and military alliances superior to those of the Cold War-era” with “no forbidden areas of cooperation”.

When President Putin visited Beijing for the Olympics, he witnessed the signing of many deals with China, including an additional supply of 100 million tonnes of crude oil from Rosneft Oil Company to China, as well as a new gas-supply deal with Gazprom.

So if the rest of the world stops buying Russian energy, will it simply sell more to China?

My view is that China’s cooperation with Russia in the energy sector will continue and China may well become the largest buyer of Russian energy exports. The likelihood is that other countries will treat Russia as a pariah and try not to buy its oil and gas and that is one of the causes behind the spike in energy prices. However, there are many factors that affect energy prices – including supply. So it will be interesting to see how countries in the Gulf respond. Saudi Arabia’s response will be important in terms of the direction of global energy prices. Although China does source a lot of energy from Russia, China imports more crude oil from Saudi Arabia than it does from Russia.

Are both Russia and China using this situation to make life difficult for the United States?

One issue on which China and Russia align is their opposition to the expansion of NATO. They maintain, somewhat implausibly, that the reason Russia has security concerns is because Ukraine has been considering joining NATO in order to side against Russia. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying slammed the U.S. as “the culprit of current tensions” and criticised Washington for sending weapons to Ukraine.

So how do Chinese people see Russia?

People in China spend a lot of time studying Russia’s history and the mistakes of its 20th-century leaders. For example, they look at historical reports which suggest the invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was a key factor in causing the demise of the USSR. In addition, the Chinese Communist Party believes that by remaining tough on political dissidents and media criticism, it will hang on to power, unlike the old Soviet leaders, who went soft. It was this thinking that led to the clampdown on Hong Kong. Some people in China view Russia as a declining power and believe it has a poor international reputation. By contrast, China wants to position itself as a promotor of global development and an upholder of norms.

If the world sanctions Russia, will China uphold the norms by also backing the sanctions?

I don’t believe it will. China has little respect for sanctions against North Korea, for example. And that’s why I think China insists on calling for “restraint” and “dialogue” to solve the Ukraine issue. However, it seems too late for that now. President Putin has made a diplomatic solution impossible.

China always says it doesn’t interfere in the internal political affairs of other countries. How does it justify Russia’s action in Ukraine? 

In my view, the attack on Ukraine using tanks and missiles is as stark an example of interfering in another country’s internal affairs as it is possible to find. Another concern is that if Russia does invade and take control of Ukraine, it could embolden China to take military action to secure its own territorial claims.

Do you mean China might attack and invade Taiwan?

Politicians in the United States have been suggesting that unless the world stands up to Russia, it could give China a chance to expand its influence in Asia. In other words, with the U.S. and Europe preoccupied with Russia, China could attack Taiwan. 

China says this is scare-mongering. China’s Ambassador to the UK Liu Xiaoming dismissed such comparisons in a tweet: ‘Taiwan is not Ukraine’. Yet this was followed by the well-established Chinese Communist Party line on Taiwan as an inalienable part of China’s territory. However, it does have plans to unify Taiwan with the People’s Republic Of China, peacefully if possible but by force if necessary. Some people fear that with the world’s attention focussed on Ukraine, this might be an opportunity for Beijing to act.

Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs and a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute, University of London.

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