As the war in Ukraine drags on, the international community’s focus has extended beyond Russia to other states that allegedly support the war.
China’s diplomatic dance to reconcile ‘respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty and ‘Russia’s legitimate security interests’ in Ukraine stands out.
Given the gravity of the situation, the pressure on Beijing from the United States and its allies to assign blame for the war is growing.
By not distancing itself from Moscow, China bears serious reputational costs and potentially risks becoming a target of secondary economic sanctions in the future. Whether Beijing was informed by Russia in advance or not, it did not want to see this war in its current form.
Yet China is unlikely to explicitly condemn Moscow or press Russia to stop the conflict. US President Joe Biden’s unsuccessful negotiations with Chinese President Xi Jinping underscored this reality.
Why is Beijing so adamant that it is not going to join the global campaign to isolate Russia?
The root cause is Beijing’s growing recognition that China and the US are on a long-term collision course that is unlikely to change.
As illustrated by relevant theoretical works, an established superpower such as the US represents the greatest threat to states like China that are on the cusp of becoming superpowers.
Conversely, emerging superpowers pose the gravest threats to the established hegemons.
US policies towards China over the last decade confirm that Washington has irreversibly embarked on a strategy of containing China, which started long before the Ukraine crisis.
Beijing views the US ‘Rebalancing to Asia’ and the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ as attempts to counter the growing geopolitical clout of the world’s second-largest economy.
As early as January 2012, Washington adopted strategic guidelines that identified Beijing as an anti-access threat in the Asia Pacific and announced a new approach to organizing its military power.
The new Joint Operational Access Concept required increasing the deployment of US naval capabilities to the region. The 2017 US National Security Strategy, in turn, called China Washington’s major adversary.
The US Third Offset Strategy is a defense innovation initiative to counteract strategic technological advantages made by major adversaries. It is aimed at sustaining the US military advantage and ensuring the capacity to win a war.
It also explicitly targets China and includes steps to engage Beijing in a direct military-technological competition that is projected to be long-term and result in an arms race.
These actions contribute to the perception of the US as China’s greatest national security threat. At the same time, it has compelled Beijing strategists to make Washington the primary focus of China’s defense policy.
China is also taking the recently minted AUKUS initiative as an anti-Beijing alliance.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morison stated that there is a growing threat from a China-led ‘arc of autocracy’. To push back against the China threat, he announced a new US$10 billion submarine base for Australia’s east coast.
The project will enable regular visits by US and United Kingdom nuclear-powered submarines.
The US is also pursuing the economic containment of China. The most recent developments included a US-China trade war, multiple incidents of entry-visa denials on both sides, embargoes on goods, and a ban on Chinese 5G mobile network technology.
This downward trend further accelerated during the Covid-19 pandemic when the new political trope – ‘the Chinese virus’ – was created.
The most puzzling episode, from the standpoint of persuading China to distance itself from Russia, is the strong US backing of Taiwan, which includes high-profile arms sales and visits by top US officials to Taipei.
Biden has essentially continued most of the Trump-era policies toward Taiwan.
Ten days into the Ukraine war, former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo traveled to Taipei to advocate that Washington should ‘take necessary and long-overdue steps to do the right and obvious thing’ – to recognize a ‘free and independent’ Taiwan.
For Beijing, Taiwan’s independence is unacceptable.
The final drop is the Western hypocrisy around India’s stance on the war in Ukraine. New Dehli, like Beijing, never condemned Moscow and through its purchases of crude oil is supporting Russia perhaps more explicitly than China.
There were mild attempts to warn India of some consequences if it tries to circumvent the US sanctions against Russia. But those warnings are nowhere close to the pressure and rhetoric being targeted at China.
Instead, the Quad has tolerated India’s position on Ukraine by highlighting that ‘each country has a bilateral relationship,’ which is why ‘no one has ever accused India of supporting what is going on in Ukraine’.
So from China’s perspective, the US criticism of Beijing is not about whether it is with or against Russia.
Unless the fundamentals of US-China relations change, it is unlikely that Beijing would risk undermining its strategic alignment with Russia.
Alexander Korolev is a senior lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.