Like India, and on expected lines, China also abstained on the U.S.-sponsored United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution condemning Russia for the invasion of Ukraine. However, China’s reasons for abstaining from voting at the UNSC as well as its gains and expectations from the invasion are unique to its own situation. In 2014 too, China decided to abstain when the last vote against Russian aggression in Crimea came up for vote in the UNSC as did the legitimacy of the Crimean referendum. However, there are far bigger consequences this time since the full-scale invasion and Ukrainian resistance are leading to more uncertain outcomes. That is why it is important to look at China’s current strategic calculations.
The status question
The first is the question of China’s status as a responsible power. This is important for China because this year, the Communist Party of China is slated to hold the 20th National Party Congress. External stability, an enabling external environment and a positive perception and recognition of China’s role in the world would help the party at home too.
This is playing out at two levels. One important question that is being asked is whether China knew of Russia’s plans to invade Ukraine and whether it did enough to discourage it. Many observers have noted that Russian President Vladimir Putin may have informed Chinese President Xi Jinping of his intentions when he visited Beijing for the opening of the Winter Olympics. Mr. Xi may have suggested that Mr. Putin wait for the Winter Olympics to conclude before recognising Donetsk and Luhansk and sending “defensive forces” there followed by the outright invasion. Chinese officials have denied such talks as being baseless. If Mr. Putin had informed Mr. Xi of the impending actions, China would have expected Russian action to be limited to the Donbas region, which includes Donetsk and Luhansk.
Moreover, by trying to engage the peace process, China would also like to avoid renewed criticisms of it being a selfish power. In the last few days, the U.S. media has been trying to argue that the U.S. must make China pay for its silence on the war. China, for its part, has refused to call the Russian action as an invasion. Recently, an op-ed published in The New York Times had alleged that U.S. intelligence had sought China’s help in dissuading Mr. Putin against the invasion, but China underplayed Russia’s intentions and brushed those concerns under the carpet.
While China may be surprised by the way the invasion has progressed, the war is not an entirely negative outcome for China. As a consequence of this invasion, the West will possibly direct its attention away from China. Thus, China will not remain the principal villain in the eyes of the liberal world, which it has been since it has unilaterally been constructing islands in the South China Sea, and since reports of human rights violations in Xinjiang have increased. One might also see a reduction in China’s ‘wolf warrior diplomacy’ as it senses an opportunity to mediate and create a stake in the settlement process.
Second, that Russia is imposing costs on the West by stretching its military budgets is also a good thing for China. This will divert Europe’s attention to its neighbourhood and away from the Indo-Pacific and possibly delay its engagements with the Quad.
Beijing also sees a pattern in Ukraine’s engagement with Europe and fears its repetition in Central Asia where Russian and Chinese interests converge in keeping democratic interventions away. For all the rhetoric of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation’s mandates of fighting “terrorism, extremism and splittism”, the principal shared concern for China and Russia is that of externally instigated regime changes, which force democratisation in Central Asia and destabilise the region. That is why China, while continuing to appeal to Russia to resolve its issues with Ukraine, has been rather stern vis-à-vis the U.S. by calling the latter’s sanctions on Russia and military promises to Ukraine as being akin to adding fuel to the fire.
Militarily and tactically, there is a lot for China to learn from this conflict. For one, the shock and awe and escalation matrix used by Russia could well be a template if China were to consider a military solution in Taiwan or in circumstances where it sees its core interests being violated. China would also be studying Russian posturing and signalling, such as putting the nuclear deterrent forces on high alert, and the response from the U.S., the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, individual European countries and the UNSC. This is not to say that China would prioritise a military solution to reunite Taiwan, but every crisis is an opportunity to learn.
Avinash Godbole is Associate Professor and Assistant Dean, Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, Jindal Global University