Since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine war, China has been urged to give up its “chilling silence” and help stop Moscow’s military aggression in the Eastern European democracy.
Yet despite international pressure over its policy of expedient neutrality, Beijing is patiently biding its time and waiting on the sidelines as the conflict unfolds.
China’s sense of vulnerability is the key factor determining its reaction to the conflict – derived from what it perceives to be its uniquely fragile geopolitical position.
The Chinese Communist Party government is in a peculiar position, prone to the influence of both Russia and the United States, the two geopolitical superpowers.
Since the end of the Cold War, China has developed ad hoc cooperation with Russia driven by their common threat perception toward the US. Beijing believes that will serve its interest by diverting Washington’s unwanted attention away from China.
But this sense of vulnerability has been manifested again in the Russia-Ukraine war.
The conflict has put China in a difficult situation by exposing the many paradoxes Beijing faces related to its relationship with Moscow.
On the one hand, Beijing has been sympathetic to Moscow’s anxiety over the eastern expansion of NATO and stressed that “Russia’s legitimate security demands ought to be taken seriously.”
But on the other hand, China can’t support Russian President Vladimir Putin’s separatist agenda for eastern Ukraine as it contradicts Beijing’s policies of unification with Taiwan or the South China Sea.
Beijing has tried to repair its damaged relationships with Europe as its trade with the European Union is an important engine for its economic growth. But China’s efforts are likely to be countered by its “pro-Russia neutrality.”
The so-called ‘no limits’ friendship between China and Russia is uncomfortable for the world’s second-largest economy.
Some analysts believe that Beijing was played by Moscow. China didn’t think Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was likely when the countries issued a joint statement and flaunted their comradeship on February 4, 2022.
What Putin actually sought was support from China for his military adventure in Ukraine. This was a risky and sly maneuver by the Russian President.
Beijing is now attempting to maintain its affinity with Russia, at least for its Moscow audiences, while also attempting to create distance from its ally, especially in the eyes of Western audiences.
China was presented with the opportunity to play a diplomatic role in the Russia-Ukraine war by working more closely with the US and working as a mediator.
But this is not a viable option for Beijing. China has determined that it would be politically naive to alleviate its awkwardly arranged relations with Russia by aligning with the US, Moscow’s greatest rival.
Beijing could find itself the subject of Washington sanctions or punishment, especially because the US-China trade war under former President Donald Trump’s administration promoted a Cold War mentality.
This situation makes it almost impossible for China to side with the US and condemn Russia’s aggression. Despite the call from Washington for a change of direction, China has remained distant and aloof.
In the virtual meeting held with Chinese President Xi Jinping in March, US President Joe Biden sent a warning that there would be consequences if Beijing provided material support to Russia.
Xi responded with a counter-warning, reminding Biden that Washington also has a responsibility to stop the war.
Xi’s words can be interpreted as an indirect warning to the US that if it imposes sanctions on China like those imposed on Russia, it will hurt Washington. After all, China is the world’s second-largest economy.
Beijing has attempted to be an independent player in the balance of power between Russia and the US. China’s approach aims to mitigate its geopolitical fragility and shield itself from Moscow’s and Washington’s manipulation.
It seems unnatural for a big player in international politics like China to be indifferent to the war in Ukraine. But China’s strategic reasoning means that it is likely to remain detached.
Jia Deng is a research assistant at the Lowy Institute.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy of China Factor.