China's Ukraine quandary

By Colin Heseltine, Former Australian Diplomat

China’s promise of ‘unlimited’ partnership with Russia poses contradictions for Beijing that will be increasingly hard to reconcile, writes Colin Heseltine.

China is in a bind. Locked into a friendship with Russia declared by both countries only last month as having no limits, already this has been challenged. China’s failure to vote with Russia on two United Nations resolutions condemning the latter’s invasion of Ukraine — it abstained along with 34 other countries — clearly set a limit to the friendship. At the same time, China has not criticised Russia for invading a sovereign independent member of the UN, placing the blame on the United States for not respecting Russia’s security needs and promoting the eastern expansion of NATO.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi declared during the National People’s Congress meeting in Beijing on 8 March that Russia and China were each other’s most important close neighbours and strategic partners, and that the friendship between the peoples was “rock solid”. Russian and Chinese cooperation, he said, contributed to peace and stability in the world.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once defined the test of a first-class mind as holding two contradictory ideas in one’s head at the same time and still function. If this dubious assertion is correct, then China’s foreign policy is indeed the product of first-class minds. More likely, it’s a case of an authoritarian great power pronouncing whatever contradictions suits it, and getting away with it.

There has been speculation among some commentators that China might be a mediator in the Ukraine crisis, and that it is the only country that could really influence Russia to cease its invasion of Ukraine. Certainly, there can be little doubt that China is watching the Ukraine situation with growing concern. The extent to which Russia may have informed China of its plans, as speculated in the West, is now largely irrelevant. The way Russia’s botched military campaign has dragged on, the extent of Western sanctions against it, the growing turmoil in the global economy, the strengthened unity among NATO and European countries, the pariah global status of its “without limits partner”, as demonstrated by 141 UN members voting to condemn it, and the threat to European components of its Belt and Road Initiative, are totally contrary to Chinese interests.

Putin, Lavrov and Xi
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov watch as Chinese President Xi Jinping delivers remarks, Moscow, Russia - June 5, 2019. Image credit: Kremlin.

China’s response so far has been to lamely call for peace talks between Russia and Ukraine, to uphold the purposes and principles of the UN, and to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, while accommodating the “legitimate security concerns of the parties involved”. In other words, China supports Ukraine’s territorial integrity but understands why Russia invaded it.

China has also presented a six-point plan to relieve the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine which lacks credibility given its refusal to condemn the invasion.

China’s Ukraine quandary has been further highlighted by recent reports that Russia sought military assistance from China shortly after the start of the invasion. While the reports have been effectively denied by both sides, they prompted US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to warn his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, during their seven hours of discussions in Rome on Monday, that the US had deep concerns about China’s growing alignment with Russia. Any direct material Chinese assistance to Russia to prosecute the invasion would send its bilateral relationship with the US to a new, and dangerous, low point.

Given its contradictory and confused public messaging, and its strong support for its relationship with Russia, there is no prospect of China being a mediator in the conflict any time soon. Nor would it want to be given Russia’s intractable position. For the time being, all we are likely to hear from China is more platitudinous commentary, as enunciated by Wang Yi, on China serving as “an anchor for stability, a force for good, and always on the right side of history”.

Given the disastrous run of events since the start of the invasion, how is it that China has been caught in such a bind? The reasons are both domestic and international. No matter how badly Russia has conducted its military action against Ukraine, China still stands by the China-Russia joint statement of 4 February which sets out the basis of their strategic cooperation in opposing the US and its allies. Particular mention was made of opposing the United States’ Indo-Pacific strategy, including AUKUS. The Ukraine invasion does not alter this strategic imperative for China.

From a domestic perspective, in the lead-up to the all-important CPC Congress in November, during which Xi Jinping’s extension as party leader is expected to be confirmed, a change in tack by China on relations with Russia would be a disaster. As the now officially declared “core” of the Communist Party, Xi cannot be seen to be wrong. Were this to happen on such a key strategic issue, it would seriously undermine his claim for extended leadership.

The problem for Xi — and China — is that Russia’s Ukraine quagmire will probably continue for a long time, thus exacerbating China’s uncomfortable position. One of China’s often pronounced international goals is global peace and stability. While this sounds like another platitude, China does have credibility on this, not for altruistic reasons but for calculated considerations of national interest.

In analysing China’s approach to global developments, we should never overlook — as some strategic analysts do — China’s domestic ambitions. Its remarkable progress in the past 40 years has been possible in an environment of global stability. The international order that China and Russia seek to revise to their advantage by undermining US influence, has served China extremely well (not so much Russia). For China, modifying the rules of the international order does not mean bringing the whole house of cards down. But can China be sure that Russia’s recklessness in Ukraine will not lead to this?

So, for the time being, China will watch carefully to see how the Ukraine situation pans out, with the CPC Congress later in the year very much on its leaders’ minds. It will continue making soothing statements about peace and stability and adherence to UN principles. But if the quagmire continues and global turmoil intensifies, at what point might China shift its position?

Colin Heseltine was Australian Ambassador to the Republic of Korea (2001-05), head of Australia's representative office in Taiwan (1992-97) and deputy head of mission in the Australian embassy in Beijing (1982-85 and 1988-92).

Banner image: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet over video link - December 15, 2021. Credit: Kremlin.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Australian Financial Review on March 16, 2022.