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Between Two Chairs. China’s reaction to the war in Ukraine


Events in Ukraine have quite literally changed the way the world operates from a "before" to an "after": a migration crisis the scale of World War II, the threat of famine in African countries which are still struggling to recover from the pandemic , as well as many other  consequences which are yet to be understood or recognised.

However, if we disregard the humanitarian and ethical aspects of what is happening, it raises the question of who stands to gain and who stands to lose from the continuation of the conflict, if we omit the main actors?

The vast majority of European states are ready to give up Russian energy resources, sacrificing their own economic development and living standards in the name of a speedy end to the bloodshed. In the short term, the United States is still seen as the obvious beneficiary: the military-industrial complex, the energy complex, plus the dollar is strengthening against the euro.

And what, for example, does the second most economically powerful country lose or gain from this conflict?

The UN resolution demanding that Russia "immediately stop using force against Ukraine" was supported by a large majority of countries, but China was among the thirty-five states that abstained in the vote.

Interestingly for the case of China however, is that both sides of the conflict pin their hopes on China.

Western leaders are demanding that China be tougher on its position and put pressure on the Russian president, with whom Xi Jinping has been building friendly relations for years, while Russia itself is hoping for China's support in circumventing sanctions and import substitution. China's role in this conflict does indeed look exceptional, and as such it is critical to pay attention to how the country will behave in the near future within the international arena.

Officially, relations between Russia and China have reached the highest level in history, having developed a comprehensive strategic partnership. On the surface, it would seem that even during the Ukrainian crisis it would be logical for China to publicly side with its old friend, but if you dig deeper, it becomes clear that everything is much more complicated.

Officially, China does not support Russia, remains neutral in international forums, and in its rhetoric adheres to the position that any conflicts must be resolved by peaceful resolution.

Photo: Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters

This model of behavior is by no means new: since 2014, Chinese diplomats have never ceased to repeat that they support the territorial integrity of Ukraine, do not consider Crimea Russian, and do not recognize the DNR and LNR.  Open support for the Russian Federation would negatively affect relations with the EU, China's most important trading partner, with which trade grew 14.8% in the first two months of 2022 alone, amounting to $137.16 billion (against a Sino-Russian trade turnover of $26.43 billion in the same period).

This seems logical, given that recognizing the disputed territories would set a dangerous precedent and raise questions about the political status of Taiwan, whose attempts to realize territorial independence from China has been vigorously suppressed. In addition, the government of a multi-ethnic country does not benefit from the aggravation of the Uighur or Tibetan national issues in China itself. As such, these ideas would position China to favour Ukraine.

At the same time, however, the Middle Kingdom needs Moscow's political support in its confrontation with the United States, resistance to NATO expansion, and condemnation of new defense alliances like AUKUS.

In this sense, the crisis in Ukraine can be swung by China to favour Russia by using it as nothing but another reason to tell ordinary citizens about America's destabilizing role in the world.

It turns out that China is trying to sit on two chairs.

Photo: Pool/EPA/EFE

Economically, the military action in Ukraine opens up many opportunities for China.

While Russia is increasingly blocked on world markets, China's position allows it to benefit from the situation. For example, the country can gain access to Russian grain, energy and other commodities at reduced prices, while conducting financial transactions in renminbi rather than dollars. Gas and oil are already being sold at a substantial discount. It was previously thought that Russia could dictate favorable conditions for itself, but at the moment the situation looks exactly the opposite and bargaining is no longer possible.

All this will protect China from economic stagnation and inflation, which have engulfed a good part of the globe, and will further increase the country's competitiveness. It turns out that the Celestial Empire is not going to become a hostage of friendship with Russia and will act solely from the standpoint of its pragmatic interests.

Even now it is clear that China is not doing anything that is prohibited by the sanctions.

For example, China has refused to cooperate with subsanctioned banks and does not supply spare parts for Airbus and Boeing aircraft. In addition, the conduct of a fairly successful telecom business is also in question: China is reviewing its product line at major companies such as Xiaomi in order to supply only those products to Russia that do not use American technology. This is done in order to avoid secondary sanctions.

Also, since the end of February, 4 out of 19 Huawei stores have already stopped working in Russia, and the company has not officially commented on what is happening and declared a lack of goods in stock as the alleged reason.

If we consider the purely political aspect, we can say that even here China has a great chance to learn from the events. The PRC is closely watching the course of the war and, most importantly, the reaction of the rest of the world to it. This has significance in terms of the Celestial Empire's own plans: Back in October 2021, Taiwan authorities estimated the probability of war with mainland China as the highest in the last 40 years. At that moment, experts began to lean towards the fact that this time the Chinese planes over the “rebellious” island were not without reason, and the PRC was really considering a military scenario for the return of democratic Taiwan to the the communist government.

Moreover, during the Shangri-La Dialogue security summit in Singapore in June, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe said to his US counterpart Lloyd Austin that Beijing would "not hesitate to go to war" if Taiwan declared independence.

Given these circumstances, it is useful for China to see how the consolidated West reacts to the current Ukrainian events, and therefore assess how tough the sanctions would be and how Russia is going to get out of the situation.

Also, a serious aspect concerns not so much the impact of the war on the PRC, but the direct role of China in the current geopolitical equation. It is believed that if anyone at the moment can influence Russia and its foreign policy, it is the Celestial Empire, with which Russia is connected to by a long-standing cooperation in energy, financial, military and industrial fields.

In particular, there is a perception in the West that China's decision to mediate would make a diplomatic solution to the conflict and an early cease-fire possible.

In addition, such a move would allow China to strengthen its image in the international arena and improve relations with Western partners.

Photo: Reuters

However, in this scenario, China would need a more definitive stance and a willingness to take responsibility for its own contribution to the resolution of the conflict. So far, such a plan seems difficult to implement, because even what terms are used to define what is happening the country chooses depends solely on the interlocutor.

For example, when speaking to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that "the only goal China is pursuing is peace, and the main line of peace talks should be unwaveringly pursued until a cease-fire and peace agreement is reached," but at the same time, in communication with the rest of the world, including Russia, Wang Yi resolutely refused to condemn what is happening.

As such, it seems the option of China playing the role of mediator seems unlikely for the time being.

Similarly, for China to act as a guarantor of peace in Europe is too big a risk and responsibility at the moment and therefore also seems unlikely.

Beijing has never acted in such a role before and has so far only engaged in peacekeeping activities within UN missions, e.g. sending its soldiers to South Sudan in 2012 or the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2021.

After analyzing all of the above facts, it is logical to assume that in the coming months China will continue to demonstrate an ambiguous position, not joining the anti-Russian sanctions, but at the same time certainly not seeking to look at Russia through the Western lens.

A country with a population of 1.4 billion people and on the eve of the 20th Party Congress does not need any adventures like mediating in the biggest crisis since World War II. Its own interests always outweigh external interests, and China will evaluate its participation in international politics primarily in terms of benefits and risks to itself.


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