Sitting on the fence is uncomfortable. Faced with a geopolitical fight that is both unthinkably brutal and sprawling in its consequences, Beijing officials are finding that such a posture might also, in the long run, be impossible.
When President Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine, he appears to have shocked Chinese officialdom along with the rest of the world. It’s difficult to know for sure whether China’s leader Xi Jinping was aware of the plans, but spokespeople and state media were certainly left scrambling to manage the message. They struggled to balance a vaunted ideological alignment with an act of aggression that violates the principles of territorial integrity and non-interference that underpin Chinese diplomacy. That’s before considering China’s ties to Ukraine and Eastern Europe more widely — an important stretch of Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative to extend trade ties and influence.
The result has been an exercise in cognitive dissonance, with a narrative that accepts Moscow’s security concerns, blames the West for creating the problem, refuses to refer to a “war” or “invasion” and bemoans unprecedented punishment — all key Russian talking points — but also affirms Ukraine’s sovereignty and tries to stay out of the economic firing line. It has called on “both sides” to de-escalate. There has been no direct condemnation of Russia’s invasion.
That position, perhaps best described as Russia-friendly neutrality, served Beijing well in 2014, after Putin’s annexation of Crimea. But it’s showing signs of strain in 2022, as the Kremlin’s aggression escalates to dramatic levels, catching even Chinese citizens in Ukraine in the crossfire. Meanwhile, economic consequences are multiplying at speed, leaving Russia increasingly cut off from the global financial system. Chinese officials — careful students of the collapse of the Soviet Union — are keenly aware of Russia’s ability to financially self-destruct, and have little desire to have their place in the global economy torpedoed by a political partner that has chosen to become an international pariah.
There have been hints of disapproval. Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin, asked about the friendship with Russia on Monday, demonstrated impressive rhetorical gymnastics, but didn’t fail to mention that the two were strategic partners — not allies. On Tuesday, for the first time since the invasion, Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke to his Ukrainian counterpart, expressing concern about “damage done to civilians.”
Igor Denisov, senior research fellow at MGIMO University’s Institute for International Studies in Moscow, argues that call wasn’t a major shift, rather a demonstration of Beijing’s purportedly constructive role in the crisis, and an effort to help its citizens caught in Ukraine. That’s no small matter given China, unlike many other nations, did not initially advise evacuation, instead pushing back against US warnings of an imminent invasion.
But Denisov also points out that the more substantial and consolidated the West’s position, the less space China will have to support Moscow, out of fear of secondary sanctions.
And there is plenty of evidence that room for maneuver is reducing fast as punitive measures pile up.
First, the geopolitics. China may disagree with US definitions of democracy and related concepts, and align with Putin’s views on multipolarity, but it sees itself as a major player in the global economic and political order, not an outsider. In an address on Monday to mark the anniversary of President Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, the foreign minister called for “the basic norms of international relations” to be followed, preached the “purposes and principles of the UN Charter” and called for improved ties. “Since the door of China-US relations has been opened, it should not be closed again,” Wang said. “Since the world has emerged from the Cold War, it should not see the descending of another iron curtain.” Commentary in official newspapers echoed the sentiment. Those are hardly the words of a regime about to side with Putin against the world.
Money speaks even louder. China has been exporting more to Russia as trade ties have strengthened over the past decade or so, and has bought more hydrocarbons and other natural resources from its northern neighbor — it’s the glue in the relationship, as seen with gas to be supplied via a new pipeline from Russia’s Far East, agreed last month. All of this has accelerated of late, and now Beijing is building up stocks of all commodities.
But the bottom line is that Russia is still a tiny export market for China: 2% of shipments, compared to the US’s 17% share. In imports, meanwhile, China has worked for years to diversify energy supply, so while Russia is a significant supplier, Beijing isn’t dependent on a single source for oil and gas — not, at least, in the way it needs the West for access to technology and to the dollar system. The inflationary impact of Russia’s adventurism, meanwhile, is already hurting China. This will be a point for Western diplomats, hoping to deter China from blunting the impact of sanctions, to emphasize.
Yes, Russia’s demand for alternatives to the dollar and to the SWIFT financial messaging system will advance substitute systems, and China has for years sought to promote the yuan as a global currency. But a transformation is not coming soon.
China will continue with its uncomfortable balancing act for now. It will use its policy banks, which are less sensitive than commercial lenders, to give support, especially for big-ticket projects. But it will stop short of encouraging state-owned and private entities that are wary of both getting tangled in sanctions and the heightened investment risk — they haven’t exactly been enthusiastic investors to date anyway. Beijing will keep calling for an end to violence and say it understands Moscow’s concerns, but will also take advantage of a friend in need by squeezing Russia for attractive terms on gas or wheat sales. Plenty of officials in Beijing no doubt see room to benefit politically from a situation that has left the US bogged down in Europe, unable to focus on Asia.
But the longer the unbridled violence continues, the tougher the sanctions and the higher the economic risk to Beijing, the harder it will be to keep sitting on the fence.