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Caught between Russia and the West, China faces ‘Ukraine dilemma’

Caught between Russia and the West, China faces ‘Ukraine dilemma’

It was meant to be a friendship with “no limits”, according to a joint statement issued February 4 as Russian President Vladimir Putin traveled to Beijing to meet his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. But as Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, China has found itself in a precarious position. Its leaders are trying to preserve the country’s growing yet fragile ties with Moscow while minimising any further fallout with the West.

As officials in Europe and the United States unequivocally condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, banding together to hit the Kremlin with a series of wide-ranging sanctions, China’s response to its neighbour’s military aggressions have instead involved a precarious balancing act.

In a nod to their growing partnership, Beijing has aligned with Moscow in some respects.

Officials from China’s foreign ministry have cast blame on the United States for current tensions surrounding Ukraine and followed Russia’s lead in calling the war in Ukraine a “special military operation” instead of denouncing it as an invasion.

Yet the situation in Ukraine has also placed China in a dilemma, due in part to its principles of noninterference and respect for territorial integrity that dictate its foreign policy — principles that would run foul of Russia’s military aggression against its neighbour.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told senior European officials on February 25 that China “firmly advocates respecting and safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries […] equally applying to Ukraine”. At the same time, Wang tempered his remarks, saying that, given five consecutive rounds of NATO’s eastward expansion, “Russia’s legitimate security demands should be taken seriously and properly addressed.”

However, when asked to vote on a UN Security Council resolution on February 25 denouncing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China abstained, leaving Moscow to veto it alone. On a phone call between Xi and Putin that same day, the Chinese president did not endorse the assault on Ukraine, but said that he supported “Russia and Ukraine resolving this problem through dialogue”, according to reports from state TV. 

“Beijing has been balancing its stance, but never losing sight of its own interests and principles in the process,” Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, a postdoctoral fellow and EU-China expert, told FRANCE 24.

Beijing’s delicate balancing act between Russia and the West

Though Beijing and Moscow have grown closer in recent years, united by authoritarianism and the common enemies of American military might and Western liberalism, experts say that the partnership is far from unconditional, as China shows itself reluctant to profess unequivocal support for Russia.

Indeed, despite fraying ties and ideological tensions, China’s economic interests remain deeply tied to the West — and even with Ukraine. China became the EU’s largest trading partner in 2021, and the country overtook Russia in 2019 to become Ukraine’s biggest single trading partner.

As Russia begins to feel the pain of widespread global sanctions meant to cripple its ability to finance war, it may turn to China for help in blunting their impact. But the country has so far shown no signs of helping Russia evade Western sanctions, given the risk of losing access to Western markets, and Chinese state banks have begun restricting financing for Russian commodities in compliance with sanctions. Instead, China has said that it would continue with “normal trade cooperation” with both Russia and Ukraine.

“China wants to preserve its ties with Moscow, abide by its principles and avoid harming relations with the United States and the European Union,” Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said to the Washington Post.

But the West’s coordinated and unprecedented response to Russian aggression could complicate China’s delicate balancing act to uphold its own agenda.

“China wants stability in its region and beyond, to be able to ensure that it can gradually and without disruptions pursue its international goals. Seeing the level of democratic unity, Beijing finds itself in an increasingly awkward situation in which closer alignment with Russia could carry more risks than benefits,” Ferenczy said.

“From Brussels’ perspective, a China that tolerates aggression and refuses to get involved whereas it could play potentially a constructive role will only further damage perceptions of China inside the EU. Beijing must be aware of these costs and benefits as the war continues to intensify and must carefully calculate its next steps.”

China and Russia: similar territorial interests

Observers have also noted parallels between China and Russia’s expansionist agendas: notably in China’s vow to achieve “reunification” by force if necessary with Taiwan, the self-governed democracy that Beijing considers its own.

Ming Jinwei, a senior editor at China’s state-run XinHua news agency, wrote on his WeChat blog that it was in China’s interests to support Russia from afar in the Ukraine crisis, as Beijing will need Moscow’s support to assert dominance over Taiwan.

Russia has already expressed its sympathies with China over Taiwan. Sergey Lavrov, the country’s foreign minister, said last year that “Russia considers Taiwan to be part of the People’s Republic of China.”

A US delegation of former senior defence officials sent by President Joe Biden arrived in Taiwan on March 1, a move seen as reassuring the island, which has raised its alert for ripple effects of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson responded by calling American support for Taiwan “futile”. “The will of the Chinese people to defend our national sovereignty and territorial integrity is unwavering,” Wang Wenbin told a daily press briefing. Chinese officials had used the same terms to express the country’s respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty.

Regarding the influence of the Ukraine conflict on China’s Taiwan agenda, Ferenczy said that China would be watching the West’s response to Russia as well as the resistance of Ukrainians.

“European member states are acting with geopolitical determination, which few expected from a bloc often seen as divided and weak. This is important for Beijing to follow, to see how far and fast the EU can and would act in case China were to change the status quo with Taiwan.”

“Equally, the CCP must be watching the resilience of the Ukrainian people with anxiety, as they have gained much vocal support and solidarity from the people of Taiwan. This is another reason for China to reconsider whatever plans it has for Taiwan, in light of an unprecedented democratic resilience.”

© Studio graphique France Médias Monde

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