China facing a trilemma amid the Russia-Ukraine war

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s official recognition of two Russia-backed Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk and the invasion of the former Soviet republic starting in the morning hours of February 24th 2022 mark one of the biggest geopolitical crises since World War II. It also seems to put Beijing in a strategic bind. China is trying to straddle its own path of tacit support for Moscow with its long-held principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Assessment

  • China – as the entire world – seems to have been taken by surprise by the resolve of Russian President Putin to launch an invasion to get control of the entire Ukraine, as evidenced for instance by the fact that the Chinese embassy in Kyiv made no moves to warn its citizens as it has done in other similar situations.

  • Given its status as one of five standing members of the UN Security Council and comprehensive strategic partner of Russia, China faces a quandary over how to balance its fundamental interest in defending the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity with the statement of opposition to the eastern expansion of NATO that was signed in a joint declaration during Putin’s most recent visit to China on February 4th.

  • Beijing essentially is trying to pursue three strategic goals at the same time.

  • On the one hand, ideological convergence and the alignment of strategic interests between China and Russia push both countries closer than ever before, as evidenced by the joint statement issued on February 4th between Presidents Putin and Xi, making denouncing Russia or standing behind international sanctions against Russia a seemingly impossible option.

  • On the other hand, China in several recent statements has tried to uphold its support for the principles of territorial integrity and non-interference, some of their fundamental five foreign policy principles of peaceful coexistence that stretch back to China’s foreign policy position established by Zhou Enlai. China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi is reported to have said to his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov during a phone conversation on February 24th that “we understand the Russian side’s legitimate concerns on security issues”. Trying to square the circle, he added that “China has always respected the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries”.

  • And the third priority for Beijing is the minimization of any collateral damage on itself by US or European sanctions. There is no doubt that an escalation of tensions along Ukraine’s borders is not in China’s interest in the long run and risks further damaging EU-China relations, which have already been strained since last year. The last thing China needs in the midst of a long-term competition with the U.S. is to make more enemies. Amid China’s quest for becoming a modernized country by the middle of this century, the EU remains one of the few high-tech sources and marketplaces for the know-how China is still dependent on.

  • Given recent statements, China seems to have decided not to take a completely neutral position, but rather to show more "understanding and sympathy" for Russia’s security concerns. Along these lines, President Xi Jinping is reported to have said to Vladimir Putin on the phone on February 25th that “[All countries] should abandon the Cold War mentality, attach importance to and respect the reasonable security concerns of all countries, and form a balanced, effective and sustainable European security regime.”

  • On the same balancing line, on late Friday evening (CET), the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke to his counterparts from the EU, France and the UK and elaborated China’s position with five points, among which also the need to “take seriously” Russia’s “legitimate” security appeals, and among which Wang for the first time mentioned the name of Ukraine and as earlier emphasized again that the principle of sovereignty and territorial integrity applied also to Ukraine. On that weekend, the Chinese Ambassador to Ukraine went further to clearly state that China respected the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.

  • The unprecedented solidarity and sanctions measures imposed by the West particularly from Europe appeared to put China as well as Putin’s Russia on the back foot and ever since Beijing began to issue seemingly more ambiguous messages about its position. But all in all, Beijing’s position so far could be described as what former China director of the US National Security Council under President Obama, Evan Medeiros, calls “pro-Russia neutrality”.

Implications

  • Beijing runs the risk that its position and actions will be perceived in Europe and the US as tacit support for Russia, enabling Putin’s policy through silence, complicity or even active support. This could severely damage China’s perception in Europe, in the US but also in the developing world.

  • Accordingly, recent deals – while admittedly alternatives might at times not be easy to find – with Russia could be perceived as such a tacit or even active support of Moscow. During Putin’s Winter Olympic visit to Beijing in early February, for instance, Russian gas giant Gazprom and China’s CNPC signed a 25-year deal on a new gas supply route. Rosneft also agreed with CNPC to supply 100mn tons of oil to China over 10 years. These arrangements skirt the dollar-based financial system with loans and credit in RMB.

  • While it is still early and China seems to be trying to maneuver itself away from the focus, it seems that Russia and China have formed kind of strategic consensus that both countries will help each other in their so-called spheres of influence across the Eurasian continent. China agrees to play second fiddle to Russia from central Asia westward, while Moscow agrees to support China’s activities in Northeast Asia, Taiwan and the South China Sea. This renewed mutual support could been witnessed also in the recent Kazakhstan unrests, where China acquiesced to the fact that Kazakhstan was pivoting towards Moscow by issuing a joint declaration during President Tokayev’s recent visit to Beijing and President Xi agreeing to make a state visit as soon as possible.

  • Finally, there are indications that Beijing might have miscalculated Putin’s resolve and not considered a military invasion likely. While in the short term, China might be the least affected actor, mid- to long-term this might nonetheless hurt China’s image in the world substantially and further increase the burden for its own rise.