Clara Ferreira Marques

China’s Ukrainian Juggling Act Isn’t Over

As Russia’s devastation of Ukraine drags on — forcing roughly a quarter of the country’s population from their homes and fueling calls for even tougher sanctions — is China’s support for President Vladimir Putin wavering? The West should be wary of hearing the answer it wants to hear.

China’s already-impossible juggling act is becoming harder as Russia razes the very Ukrainian cities it supposedly set out to defend. The war was no doubt sold to Zhongnanhai by the Kremlin as a quick regime-change operation, but the current bloody stalemate has left Beijing pinballing uncomfortably from its alignment with Moscow against US foreign policy to its continued defense of territorial integrity, sovereignty and non-interference and its economic interests with the US and Europe. China may be a key export market for Russia, but Russia makes up a mere 2% of China’s shipments.

Western observers hunting for hints of change in China’s posture have seized, among other things, on last week’s decision by English-language CGTN, the overseas arm of state broadcaster CCTV, to run graphic Ukrainian footage that showed civilians killed while waiting in line for bread in Chernihiv. Earlier this month, CGTN ran Ukrainian images of a smoldering apartment block, explaining that Russian forces “hit residential areas, including schools.” Could reality be sinking in?

This footage is significant, given Chinese state-run outlets domestically have steered clear of addressing Russian atrocities or even of discussing or referring to a “war,” continuing to hew to the Kremlin’s version of events when they do. Yet choices on English-language channels targeted at overseas readers do not necessarily reflect the national media landscape, let alone policy shifts. Maria Repnikova at Georgia State University, a communications scholar who writes on China, explains CGTN has ambitions to become a reputable global news outlet and has had journalists on the ground. Its own staff may be pressing for more credible reports — and that’s not unhelpful for Beijing’s officials, who are trying to claim neutrality and calling for “restraint.”

But then an even more crucial question arises. If China isn’t getting off the fence, given everything we know today about the way the war is going, not to mention the high risks of backing Russia and the limited costs of edging away — why not? Why make this strategic choice under significant pressure?

Start by considering that China’s position is not without domestic opponents. There is discord online, within the confines of China’s internet, and some important figures have spoken out, like scholar Hu Wei, who unleashed a noisy — and rapidly silenced — debate with an article warning about the consequences of increased isolation. China, he wrote, cannot be left tethered to the failing Russian leader: “Being in the same boat as Putin will impact China should he lose power.” His advice? “Cutting off from Putin and giving up neutrality will help build China’s international image and ease its relations with the US and the West.” Wang Huiyao, who runs a think tank, wrote in the New York Times earlier this month that a war that reinvigorates Western alliances and military budgets is not in China’s interests. Beijing is ignoring all this excellent counsel.

It helps to remember the long path of increasing rapprochement between Moscow and Beijing. China has been moving closer to Russia for more than a decade. That’s visible in its stance on the Kremlin’s military adventures, from the war with Georgia 2008 to the annexation of Crimea in 2014 to today. It reflects Chinese internal politics, the tighter grip of Xi Jinping, plus Russia’s own hardening and isolation — yet it especially reflects the hardening of US foreign policy, something that is unlikely to change soon. China clearly sees the fight in Ukraine through the prism of its own clashes with the United States. Russia is a friend it needs onside.

Most crucially, any expectation of a volte-face misunderstands autocratic regimes and the path dependency of their leaders. For Beijing, which has never condemned the aggression, to pivot clearly away from a faltering Putin would certainly be sensible, as Hu suggests — unfortunately, doing so would involve recognizing Xi’s error. And Xi cannot err.

What we see instead is continued discomfort and a discourse that still sticks to Russian talking points; China will not provide military assistance and will largely respect sanctions — it has too much to lose — but won’t sign up to an embargo.