China’s Doublespeak On The Ukraine Conflict – Analysis
By Observer Research Foundation
By Kalpit A Mankikar
As a nation with an ancient heritage and a veritable literature of successful statecraft, China draws great inspiration from its history, which is essentially a linear chronicle of the rise and fall of various imperial dynasties. One of the lessons learnt from ancient treatises like the ‘Stratagems of the Warring States’ is that it is prudent to prepare the ground till one gets the maximum opportunity to strike.
This strategy seems to have played out in China’s role in the Russia-Ukraine conflict that has dragged on now for nearly a year. The PRC’s public position has been to push for peace talks and de-escalate tensions as evidenced by the Chinese President Xi Jinping’s warning that ‘nuclear wars must not be fought’ amid the spectre of an all-out escalation in Russia’s war in Ukraine. However, China has used Russia’s aggression against Ukraine to first, bolster an anti-Western narrative to suit its agenda. Second, Chinese strategists blame the US for causing instability and fuelling the crisis in Ukraine. Third, China is using the American bogey as a pretext to try and build an alternative security architecture in Asia.
The ‘Stratagems of the Warring States’ counsel rules that superiority in the military sphere is not the most important element in triumphing in long-term contestation. In recent years, Xi has stressed upon the need to develop capacities to improve China’s narrative and accumulate the discourse power commensurate with its comprehensive national power to push its agenda globally. In 2020, well before Russian President Vladimir Putin went to Beijing to forge with China the compact that had “no limits” and “no forbidden areas”, Russia and China pledged to join hands to counter what they termed as disinformation. They argued that certain forces (read the West) were using the pandemic as an excuse to attack nations that had different social systems and development paths.
Since then Chinese strategists have chosen to amplify Russian propaganda in connection with the latter’s aggression in Ukraine, and hold the US responsible for the crisis. Chinese military strategists posit that there is a bipartisan consensus across Republican and Democrat presidencies to maintain American hegemony through means of war and conflict, citing instances of US intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan to prove its conte ntion. Others point to the US’s urge to encircle and suppress Russia for initiating the Ukrainewar , stating that America’s strategy of the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in the guise of consolidating democracy and common values precipitated the Ukraine crisis.
At a time when the European Union (EU) is deepening ties with NATO as evidenced bythe signing of the joint declaration in early January 2023, citing Russian concerns and the spectre of increasing Chinese assertiveness, PRC’s strategists warn Europe that moving in that direction can draw the continent into a mire of conflicts. In this endeavour, it seeks to drive a wedge between the US and Europe since China stands to gain in this discord.
Till date, questions have raged on regarding the origins of COVID-19 and its link to the Wuhan Institute of Virology, near the market that was said to be the outbreak’s ground zero. Researchers have put forth theories ranging from slack safety norms at the virology institute to more sinister claims of biological warfare. Yet the world community is nowhere close to finding the truth about how coronavirus emerged since China has consistently shot down any independent investigations into the origins. But the conflict in Ukraine has come in handy for China to question America’s commitment to protocols and covenants related to biological research. Chinese propagandists have insinuated that there may be a link between the US relocating biolabs in other nations and outbreak of diseases in recent years.
Chinese strategists have red-flagged the concept of the Indo-Pacific likening America’s approach of developing ties with China’s neighbours with an aim of creating an “Asian NATO” to consolidate American hegemony in the region, cautioning that such a strategy will have implications on regional stability. The impulse to discredit America’s alliances has been prompted by China’s fear that they will put roadblocks in its plan to capture Taiwan, which the CCP defines as a core interest. But China is using the ruse of heightened threat to create alternative security architecture as evidenced by the security pact it signed with the Solomon Islands barely a few years after it switched recognition from Taiwan to the People’s Republic, which may present a challenge to the security interests of the US and Australia. The controversial agreement has been followed by China’s overtures to deepen security and economic relations with nations in the Pacific Islands region.
Russia and China are both united in a mission to rebuild imagined empires and have adopted similar strategies in this project. The annexation of Crimea and the Ukraine misadventure was motivated by a desire to restore the Russian empire. Likewise, China embarked on reclamation in South China Sea and subsequently started building military infrastructure before extensivelypursuing its historical claims over the Senkaku islands and Taiwan reunification.
Their mission has highlighted the issue of autocratic regimes weaponising historical claims and using it to forcibly occupy territory.
There is speculation that Xi will be visiting Russia this year, scotching perceptions that Beijing was not on the same page as Moscow with respect to its war in Ukraine.
While China has postured that it is in favour of de-escalation, its actions point in another direction. The head of China’s parliament, Li Zhanshu, visited Russia in September 2022 and justified Russia’s actions saying that the nation’s security considerations had prompted its behaviour, while offering China’s assistance in the effort. But Li can be heard using the Mandarin word ‘cèyìng’, which has a military connotation, ‘support by coordinated action’. This is being put into practice by Chinese firms that are boosting the war effort by providing logistical muscle with theCCP’s tacit approval.
Recently, the US government slapped sanctions on a Chinese company for furnishing satellite data in Ukraine to help the Wagner Group, which was designated as a transnational terrorist organisation. In the face of the Russian military’s battlefield reverses, the Wagner Group has been involved to push Russian prisoners into the frontline. As far as the narrative battle goes, the EU seems to have taken cognisance of the efforts of the propaganda factory in blaming the recent food shortage on account of the war on Western sanctions, with EU Vice-President Josep Borrell writing a signed article on the need to take countermeasures. Thus, China seeks to let Russia do the fighting in Europe which has the effect of exhausting the resolve of Western powers in the event of its confrontation with Taiwan.