China’s Precarious Balancing Act

By Yu Jie, Senior Research Fellow, Asia-Pacific Program, Chatham House

In its efforts to maintain ties with both Russia and Europe, China is wading through a briar patch of conflicting interests and rapidly changing sentiments, writes Yu Jie.

Precisely how far China will go in supporting Russia has been one of the most important questions of the war in Ukraine. On February 20, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that China may soon provide arms (“lethal support”) to Moscow. But then, on February 24 – the anniversary of Russia’s invasion – China released a position paper calling for a political settlement to end the conflict, tellingly omitting any mention of its “no-limits partnership” with Russia.

China’s goal was to present itself as a neutral mediator. In fact, Beijing’s ties with Russia remain unchanged, even if this relationship has grown more exasperating for Chinese diplomats over the past year. Their job is to continue striking a delicate balance, a task that is becoming increasingly difficult as Russian President Vladimir Putin doubles down on nuclear brinkmanship and reckless rhetoric.

With Putin extolling the law of the jungle in its most brutal form, China must be careful not to involve itself too much in the conflict. After all, Russia is clearly losing, and China has high hopes of repairing ties with major European economies. But Putin is of course keen to signal that China has his back. That is why he recently rolled out the red carpet for China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, and then alluded to an (unconfirmed) upcoming visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Such diplomatic developments allow him to present China’s ambivalent position as, in fact, an endorsement of the invasion.

While the costs of aligning with Russia could easily outweigh the benefits for China, one must remember that China’s reasons for maintaining good relations with the Kremlin go beyond the war in Ukraine. For starters, the two countries share a 2,672-mile (4,300-kilometer) border – roughly equivalent to the width of Europe – and the frontier’s exact location was not even finally settled until the beginning of this century, after generations of negotiations that included some 2,000 meetings.

Yet to this day, the spectre of the Sino-Soviet split in the 1950s and 1960s looms large on both sides, and it is not likely to be exorcised anytime soon. With China focused on moves by the United States and its allies in East Asia and the Indo-Pacific, it simply cannot afford sabre-rattling or unrest on its other borders.

Moreover, unlike the collective West, China’s foreign policy has always been shaped by interests, rather than by values. Even with respect to Russia, the two countries’ bond is based mainly on shared resentment of US hegemony. By deepening their bilateral cooperation in recent years, they have been able to achieve a level of great-power status with which to counterbalance America.

But Putin’s misadventure in Ukraine has forced Xi and China’s newly minted Politburo to manage a new set of economic, financial, and political risks. Russia’s war has left the West more firmly united than it has been in years. As China’s relations with the US have reached new lows, Chinese leaders want to avoid also alienating the European Union, which is one of the country’s biggest trading partners.

This is why Xi and Chinese diplomats have been so careful not to accept the Kremlin’s talking points in full. Being isolated from the “collective West” is not an attractive option for China, given its hopes of achieving a robust economic rebound after years of the “zero-COVID” policy. In seeking to keep diplomatic and trade channels open, China’s main tactic has been to reassure European countries that it will use its own ties with Russia to restrain Putin from deploying nuclear weapons.

At the same time, China is making a renewed push to strengthen its ties with the Global South, where many countries do not see the war in Ukraine in the same stark moral terms as the West does. The emphasis on energy and food security in China’s recent position paper may have struck a chord with developing countries that have been reeling from the war’s negative knock-on effects on their economies. Most non-Western countries are looking to drive their post-COVID recoveries through revived trade and investment, since they cannot fall back on a newly booming defence industry.

If China senses that it is increasingly at odds with the entire West, not just with the Americans, it ought to avoid moving any closer to Russia. But wisdom may not prevail. The war in Ukraine continues to test China’s ability to navigate a briar patch of conflicting interests and rapidly changing sentiments. This may be one of its last good chances to gain global recognition and praise for helping to resolve a major international crisis. But Xi will need to be explicit about limits with his “no-limits” friend in the Kremlin.

Yu Jie is a senior research fellow on China in the Asia-Pacific program of Chatham House.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.