If China’s policymakers are facing a tightrope walk as they calibrate their response to the Ukraine crisis, caught between close ties with Russia and concerns that their stand will aggravate already fraught relations with the West, one abiding Chinese foreign policy concern is likely to tilt the balance.
One consistent theme in China’s messaging since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been highlighting U.S. responsibility for the crisis. “When the U.S. drove five waves of NATO expansion eastward all the way to Russia’s doorstep,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said on February 23, “and deployed advanced offensive strategic weapons in breach of its assurances to Russia, did it ever think about the consequences of pushing a big country to the wall?”
Beijing has since expressed its support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, although like India, it has abstained on UN Security Council resolutions condemning Russia. It is, also like India, primarily focused about the safety of its citizens and has been engaged in a similar evacuation effort to help Chinese students.
That aside, the broader context for Beijing’s dual-track approach of highlighting Russia’s “legitimate security concerns” while blaming the U.S. and NATO is what China’s leaders have been highlighting, over the past few years, as a geopolitical moment with “changes unseen in a century”.
Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of the Communist Party-run Global Times, wrote last week that the conflict “is not simply a matter between Russia and Ukraine, but a showdown between Moscow and NATO” that “poses challenges to Washington’s power.”
“The outcome of the conflict will have an influence on the whole of Europe, or even the world,” he said. “If Moscow wins, and Putin gains the desired result of Ukraine’s neutrality…it will also be indicative of weakening U.S. hegemony.” On the other hand, he cautioned, the conflict could also “consolidate U.S. hegemony” and “unite the U.S. and the West”. He also noted the conflict had exposed weaknesses in the military of China’s close ally, Russia, which could end up even more dependent on China after this crisis, a development that would have particular repercussions for India.
The outcome will be closely followed in Beijing, already being seen as a moment as pivotal as the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991 which continues to be analysed for its lessons for China.
The impact of Western sanctions bringing Russia to its knees – and how China might face a similar situation in the future – will be one particular area of focus, as also how Beijing could steel itself for such a scenario. So far, there are no signs that Beijing wants to expose itself to the repercussions of those sanctions by stepping in a big way to support Russia, and reports have said Chinese state-owned banks are already restricting financing for Russian commodities.
“China is likely also shocked to watch Western countries butcher Russia’s economy and isolate its government,” scholar Tong Zhao of Carnegie China observed on Twitter. “It probably swears never to allow this happen on itself. This could further strengthen Mr. Xi’s long-standing preference of self-reliance and autarky, believing China must be able to prevent external strangulation.” That would further push decoupling with the West.
He noted China “failed to predict the war”, although Beijing hosted Vladimir Putin in early February and hailed a relationship with “no limits”. Some observers in Beijing, which pooh-poohed U.S. warnings, believe China may have wrongly assumed Russia had limited actions in mind such as recognising the two break-away republics, rather than an all-out invasion of the entire country.
Mr. Zhao observed China now “faces two strategic paths going forward”, either “double down on the current no upper limits…close alignment with Russia” or “seize the opportunity to improve relations with the West”.
The latter would mean an unexpected, albeit tactical, pause in what is still China’s all-consuming priority, which remains the U.S. “This could be a pivotal moment,” Mr. Zhao said, “as how China makes this strategic choice would have the most profound geopolitical consequences for China’s future”.