As the Ukraine war drags on, China is growing uneasy
Beijing has halted fresh Belt and Road Initiative investments in Russia and tried to mediate with a few visits and phone calls to several western leaders. However, nobody gave importance to the Chinese offer for negotiations
As the Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its second year and the path to ending the war remains uncertain, China is increasingly feeling constrained by and conflicted with its national interests and strategic goals, the exaggerated limitless partnership with Russia, and its overdependence on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) and G-7 countries for its economic and technological rise. The war has shattered Beijing’s assiduously built narrative of peace and stability that benefited it with the free flow of goods, services and investments, making it the world’s second-largest economy. It was a major beneficiary not only of globalisation, but also trade with western countries. The conflict has dented its ambitions of emerging as a dominant country by shifting the global focus to Russia.
In the initial stages of the conflict, China blamed Nato’s military expansion as justification for Russian actions. It opposed western sanctions on Russia as these were contributing to the rise in prices of food, fuel and fertilisers. Since then, its energy imports from Russia have boomed, increasing from $35 billion in 2021 to $60 billion in 2022, with some local currency transactions.
Then politburo standing committee member Li Zhanshu’s visit to Russia on September 7 last year underlined that Beijing planned to back Moscow’s need to secure its core interests, including in Ukraine. However, as international criticism mounted and the threat of global isolation solidified, China appears to have started reassessing its priorities and postures. In recent weeks, Beijing has professed neutrality, saying that every nation’s sovereignty and territorial integrity should be respected, advocated peaceful resolution through dialogue, negotiations and restraint, and talked about curbing the spillover effects of the war on food and energy prices.
Beijing has halted fresh Belt and Road Initiative investments in Russia and tried to mediate with a few visits and phone calls to the leaders of France, Germany, Hungary, Finland and others. However, nobody gave importance to the Chinese offer for negotiations as it is not an honest broker and, in fact, a marginal player in the main war theatre.
China is also constrained by the United States (US)’s criticism and sanctions threats. President Joe Biden told his counterpart Xi Jinping that China should not provide material support to a desperate Russia. However, it was reported that China exported Su-35 fighter aircraft components, high-resolution satellite images from a Changsha-based firm, and chips to Russia last year. This resulted in US sanctions on Chinese firms. This is a worry for China because it is dependent on Nato and G-7 for fuelling its rise in the international system, with trade worth nearly $3 trillion. In contrast, its trade with Russia is only about $120 billion.
The most crucial opportunity for China in the Russian occupation of parts of Ukraine was the possibility of reunifying with Taiwan. Even though Ukraine and Taiwan have different continental and maritime contexts, China, at one time, was tempted to invade Taiwan. However, Beijing dragged its feet as a Russian victory proved elusive.
Moscow has been a long-standing military superpower. But Chinese commentators were surprised by how Russia could not successfully clinch the matter in Ukraine. On the other hand, they noted the heavy casualties and destruction on the Russian part as well and detested the possibility of getting bogged down in the Taiwan Straits with millions of casualties.
Chinese analysts’ opinions range from outright criticism of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, such as by Gong Fangxin, a retired People’s Liberation Army officer and faculty at National Defence University, the conflict becoming collateral damage to China, in the words of Fu Cong, ambassador to the European Union or a critique of the “wolf warrior” stance of the US and the Nato expansion.
How this conflict could come to an end is anybody’s guess. But the position of Chinese analysts can be summarised in three scenarios. They find both opportunities and challenges for Beijing in all three. First, as the death toll and all-round destruction mount for both sides, calls for negotiations to end the war have become louder. This scenario offers Beijing an opportunity to bounce back and grab a seat at the table, although it has less credibility with the Ukrainians. China’s leaders have not met any Ukrainian leaders so far in deference to the Russian side.
A second scenario is a victory for the Russian side. In this scenario, Beijing expects to consolidate an anti-western partnership, even though there is a lingering apprehension that any eastward expansion of Russia could constrain China’s rise.
A third scenario is a prolonged conflict in Ukraine, bleeding Russia further and leading to its further disintegration. In such a scenario, Beijing would lose a diplomatic ally and a multipolar partner. But with its nationalist agenda of rejuvenating China, such a scenario could lead to calls for occupying Vladivostok and enhancing influence over the Siberian region. There is already significant Chinese migration in the Khabarovsk and Krai regions.
A further unlikely scenario is where a nuclear confrontation over the Ukraine crisis could emerge, with major (radioactive) consequences sweeping eastwards towards China, but more significantly affecting further Belt and Road Initiative projects in the Eurasian region. On this, Beijing’s backchannel diplomacy with the US and Russia is being stepped up.
Srikanth Kondapalli is dean of the School of International Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
The views expressed are personal