ASPI Note: Assessing China’s Response to Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine
February 24th, 2022 by Kevin Rudd | 22/10
What’s Happening: With Russia having launched a large-scale invasion of Ukraine, the world is eying how Russia’s most significant international partner, China, will respond. As the European Union and the United States and its allies move to implement sweeping sanctions against Moscow, the degree of Chinese support Russia receives is likely to prove a crucial factor in how well it can weather the long-term consequences of Vladimir Putin’s decision to cast the die of war.
Beijing’s Reaction so Far: In its diplomatic rhetoric, Beijing has, so far, tried to avoid the appearance of having definitively taken a side in the conflict.
- China’s ambassador to the UN, Zhang Jun, called for “restraint” at a UN Security Council meeting Thursday, saying China was “highly concerned” about the situation and believed that “the door to a peaceful solution to the Ukrainian issue is not completely closed and should not be closed.”
- But in a call just after the invasion began, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi reacted to an assertion by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that Russia had been “forced to take necessary measures” to protect itself by assuring him that “China understands Russia’s legitimate concerns on security issues.”
- And, responding to a U.S. statement that “China has an obligation to urge Russia to ‘back down’,” China’s Assistant Foreign Minister Hua Chunying has struck a decidedly combative tone, saying “The United States is not qualified to tell China what to do on the issue of respecting national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” and blaming Washington for having “set the fire” by “sending weapons to Ukraine, heightening tensions, creating panic and even hyping up the possibility of warfare.”
- Hua also added that China would “consistently oppose all illegal unilateral sanctions.”
Between the Lines: Diplomatically, Russia’s aggression has put China in a very awkward position, given its extensive economic relationship with Europe. Now China is trying to have its cake on Ukraine and eat it too: pretending to a wider audience (including the Europeans) that it supports the inviolability of sovereign borders under international law, while also providing diplomatic and — more critically — economic support for Russia despite its direct violation of Ukraine’s borders.
- This double speak is unlikely to fool anybody, despite the protestations of the Chinese Foreign Ministry, which is trying to walk an impossible tightrope.
- The main damage to China’s global interests will occur within the EU, NATO, and especially Germany, where the image of a strategically benign China has been exposed as duplicitous.
Moving Forward: Behind the curtain, Chinese President Xi Jinping has thrown nearly his full support behind Putin, with the two countries’ groundbreaking early February joint statement having portrayed their relationship as one that now has “no limits.” China can be counted on to alleviate Western sanctions on Russia.
- China lifted all import restrictions on Russian wheat Thursday, preparing the ground for Russia to redirect a greater share of its exports to China.
- In the China-Russia joint statement, China already agreed to energy deals that would as much as triple Russian natural gas exports to China by 2025.
- And the two countries have already significantly accelerated the “dedollarization” of their financial and trade relationship in an effort to bypass U.S. financial sanctions.
The Big Irony: Despite Beijing’s frequent condemnation of “Cold War thinking” and “Cold War-style blocs,” its political support of Russia’s flagrant violation of the principle of territorial sovereignty may well help propel existing geostrategic rivalry into a new Cold War.
What We’re Watching: Policymakers and Defense officials in Washington and Taipei will be on high alert for any effort by Xi Jinping to test Taiwan’s defenses amid the crisis in Ukraine.
- Taiwan's defense ministry said Thursday that nine Chinese aircraft had entered its air defense identification zone, hours after Russian forces entered Ukraine.
- China’s Hua has dismissed any comparison between Ukraine and the Taiwan Strait, saying “Taiwan is not Ukraine” because “Taiwan has always been an inalienable part of China. This is an indisputable legal and historical fact.” This is unlikely to be reassuring.
Go Deeper: Read ASPI’s note on “Understanding China’s Growing Support for Russia.”