Explained | Locating China in the Russia-Ukraine war

Is China’s discourse and rhetoric being reflected in its actions? How is the Russia-Ukraine conflict affecting China’s standing on the global stage? Why has China’s neutrality been called a ‘pro-Russia’ neutrality? What have been the latest revelations regarding China aiding Russia in its campaign?

February 09, 2023 11:02 pm | Updated February 10, 2023 02:53 pm IST

Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping via a video link at the Kremlin in Moscow on December 30, 2022.

Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping via a video link at the Kremlin in Moscow on December 30, 2022. | Photo Credit: AFP

The story so far: As the Russia-Ukraine conflict marches toward the one-year mark, there seem to be hardly any signs of de-escalation. Western powers have started providing powerful offensive weapons to Ukraine, and Russia has threatened grave consequences in response. Moreover, as Western sanctions on Russia progressively tighten, the country is increasingly becoming reliant on China. While China has officially been speaking in a largely neutral language, there have been some instances that have come to light recently of China allegedly assisting Russia in its campaign.

What is China’s stance on the conflict?

China’s formal stance on the conflict has been on the lines of “all countries deserve respect for their sovereignty and territorial integrity” and that “support should be given to all efforts that are conducive to peacefully resolving the crisis”, which it has consistently been reiterating on the world stage. With an emphasis on “all countries”, China appears to be demonstrating its position as being equidistant from both the conflicting parties. However, despite this articulation, China’s attitude towards the conflict has often been categorised as a ‘pro-Russian neutrality’.

Russia and China are engaged in a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era”; and despite the conflict, China has pushed ahead with strengthening its relations with Russia. Moreover, China has painted the U.S. and NATO as prime instigators of the crisis, echoing the Russian narrative in this regard. It also needs to be noted that in the past year since the start of the conflict, out of the seven resolutions put to vote in total at the UN General Assembly, Security Council, Human Rights Council, and the World Health Organization by the West against Russia, China voted against three and abstained from four. In fact, China had only voted in favour of one U.N. Security Council resolution — the proposal which was raised by Russia on humanitarian aid. Hence, China’s portrayal of a neutral stance has many detractors.

However, as the conflict progressed, China’s rhetoric seems to be becoming less pro-Russia and more neutral in tone. The signaling from China’s top leadership seems to suggest this. Xi Jinping, the President of China, during his November 2022 meeting with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, warned that the conflict should not cross the nuclear threshold; perhaps referring to Russia’s President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats to deter Western support to Ukraine. Also, China’s incoming Foreign Minister Qin Gang mentioned in his article in The Washington Post in March 2022 that “Had China known about the imminent crisis, we would have tried our best to prevent it”. Subsequently, in his piece in The National Interest in December 2022, he struck a sympathetic note with the Ukrainians. He had also in other instances emphasised that there are some limits in China’s relations with Russia despite the talks of a “no limits” partnership.

Apart from the higher level leadership in China, there have also been some alleged noises from below the hierarchy which have been critical of Putin’s actions. Nevertheless, the new trend in China’s attitude to the conflict was once again on display during the G-20 summit held at Bali in November 2022. The leaders’ declaration which stated that most members strongly condemned the war, was not concurred with by China only because of its objection to calling the conflict a ‘war’. However, China not opposing the condemnation of the conflict itself, rather than its terminological nuance, is something which has not missed international scrutiny.

How much is China involved in the conflict?

Outside the realm of discourse, China’s actions do not seem to carry any such nuances, as it is intervening at least in an indirect manner in the conflict. China has benefited immensely from buying cheap Russian oil and gas. Since the start of the conflict, China has displaced Germany as the largest purchaser of Russian oil, with Russia replacing Saudi Arabia as China’s largest supplier of crude oil. The growing collusion between the two countries is not just limited to hydrocarbons, but also extends to materials and technology.

Recently, The Wall Street Journal has exposed China’s covert assistance to Russia by accessing Russian customs data compiled by C4ADS, an American think tank. The findings suggest that Chinese State Owned enterprises in the defence sector have provided navigation equipment, jamming technology, radar systems and fighter-jet parts to their Russian counterparts. According to the data, several tens of thousands of shipments of dual use goods have been sent by China to Russia, to which the latter would otherwise be having only restricted access due to sanctions. It has also been found that millions of chips have made its way to Russia through China; chips being central to modern military equipments and also subject to increasing sanctions by the West — both against Russia and China.

China refuted such allegations and claimed that the military dimensions of such transactions were mere speculations. This is in sharp contrast to China’s rhetoric where it demands Western powers not to send military support to intensify the conflict. These actions by China have a huge significance with respect to recent developments, wherein countries like Germany and the U.S. are sending their offensive weapon platforms to Ukraine such as the Leopard and Abrams tanks, respectively. The West is starting to take actions against China in this milieu. For instance, the U.S. has recently slapped sanctions on Spacety China, a Chinese satellite company which was indirectly providing satellite imagery of Ukraine to the Wagner Group, a Russian private military force which is now heavily involved in the conflict.

What is the rationale behind China’s emerging attitude?

While there is a strengthening of neutrality in China’s rhetoric, the same is absent in its actions. This trend and dichotomy can only be explained by understanding China’s larger gameplan. China needs to keep Russia close and well-supplied because Russia is its premier ally in its larger global ambition to undermine U.S. dominance. China would also like to keep its Russia card so that in the eventuality of the conflict turning into peace talks, China could use it to gain concessions from the West. Perhaps, the ideal bargain which China seeks is on the trade and technology front where it is facing major challenge from the West of late. This is significant for China, especially at a time when it desperately needs a post-Zero COVID economic revitalisation.

China cannot overtly support Russia as it will hurt its relations with both Ukraine and the European Union (EU). China is the largest trading partner for both Russia and Ukraine; in fact, China displaced Russia in 2019 as Ukraine’s largest trading partner. Ukraine, and not the U.S., is China’s largest corn supplier and its third largest supplier of military equipment; China is Ukraine’s biggest market for defence goods. Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier, is basically a refurbished aircraft carrier bought from Ukraine after the Soviet Union’s disintegration. China, therefore cannot abandon all its interests in Ukraine for Russia’s sake. China also has very strong economic ties with the EU, and would like the EU to further bolster its strategic autonomy to act more independently of the U.S. in matters of geopolitics.

On the whole, China’s efforts at the end to encourage Russia in a limited and covert manner, without raising alarms in the West seems to be to be intended to keep the war going. For one, it provides valuable time and information for planning a Taiwan invasion. China maybe watching and learning from Western assistance to Ukraine to forecast their response to a possible invasion of Taiwan in the future by China, as mentioned by the CIA Director William Burns in July 2022. It is certainly in China’s best interest to keep Russia and the West divided, lest they team up together against China as in the 19th century. Moreover, with the conflict prolonging, the West will be distracted from the Indo-Pacific theatre, and Russia will be left weakened to pose any threat to China’s growing influence in the post-Soviet space. At the same time, China can fill the economic void in Russia left by the withdrawal of Western investment and technology, while engineering an economic recovery for itself.

China can also build up its strategic reserves and capabilities during the crisis to prepare for an inevitable hostile period of relations with the U.S. in a post-Ukraine scenario.

Dr. Anand V. is the Coordinator of the China Study Centre at the Department of Geopolitics and International Relations, Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal (Karnataka).

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