China has been keen to exploit the geopolitical opportunities created by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ensuing war. This strategy serves China’s ambition to become a dominant global power in a great-power competition. Beijing sees the weakening of the existing hegemonic order as a chance to assert its superior role in the emerging world order.
Accordingly, Chinese President Xi Jinping, who advocates for a multipolar world, has urged many countries in the global south not to back the U.S. policy on Ukraine. He has also portrayed China as a peace broker, trying to demonstrate its significant influence over Russia, while welcoming the continuation and escalation of the war. As Putin’s most important economic partner, he has three main objectives for prolonging the conflict: 1. preventing Putin’s downfall and Russia’s defeat 2. challenging the liberal order based on American values 3. securing a stake in the peace negotiations and reaping economic benefits from Ukraine’s reconstruction. In order to achieve these goals, it is highly likely that China increases its support for Russia, especially if the West gains the upper hand in this war.
China, as an impartial player and an engaged observer, does not want to see Russia lose and Putin fall. China views Russia under Putin’s leadership as a very valuable asset, as it provides China with cheap energy in its Cold War-like rivalry with Washington. Beijing fears that a Russian defeat in the Ukraine war would destabilize Russia. The disintegration of Russia could create turmoil along China’s borders and hamper China’s ability to trade smoothly with Central Asia, the South Caucasus, and Europe. Although Putin and Xi may differ on how to resolve the conflict in Ukraine, they concur that a Russian defeat would be intolerable.
The second objective is to expose the failure of the liberal order. If the war persists and exacerbates inflation and food insecurity worldwide, China can portray the conflict as proof of the collapse of the former U.S.-led global order. Beijing officials can claim that this is the outcome of decades of American hegemonic management, which has brought our world to such an impasse while presenting themselves as the heralds and protectors of a new, fair, and alternative order. Furthermore, China will be more than willing to prolong the war as long as it keeps U.S. attention and resources concentrated on Europe and away from the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
China’s third aim is to secure a significant stake in Ukraine and its post-war developments. Beijing may be content to exhaust the parties involved in the war in Ukraine, but ultimately, as a rising great power, it wants to exert a decisive influence on the political process of peace and economic reconstruction of Ukraine after the war. Although Kyiv insists that only its supporters in the war can be the real beneficiaries of the opportunity to revive and rebuild the country. But Zelensky will eventually need the assistance of wealthy China to meet his enormous needs in the recovery and reconstruction process.
Xi’s peace plan reveals Beijing’s ambition to be both a mediator and an economic player in Ukraine and to join the peace talks and win the win-win peace game. These three goals are so important that they rule out a passive approach by Beijing’s officials and compel China to align the events in Ukraine with its interests. China will do all it can to thwart the U.S. and the West in Ukraine. If Russia fares poorly in the war, China will support Putin strongly. China sees this war as a chance to reshape its preferred international and world order. Beijing does not mind the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, as it allows it to be an active actor. But if the balance tilts towards the West, it is ready to change from an observer to an intervenor. A strategy that is dreadful for the U.S. and its allies.
Hence, to prevent Putin’s defeat, China may have to go beyond being a political-economic ally and supporter of Russia and adopt a risky approach of providing military aid to Russia in order to give Russian forces an edge on the battlefield. This tactic would reassure the anxious Russian elite that Russia can sustain the war. China’s military aid would increase Russia’s readiness to wage a prolonged war and shield Putin from the political vulnerabilities of his disastrous invasion of Ukraine. It would also divert the U.S. attention from Taiwan and the Pacific Ocean. The war in Ukraine and the Western involvement in that region, on the other hand, would advance China’s grand policies, including the Belt and Road Initiative from its southern axis. However, the end of this war, especially if it entails Russia’s defeat, would mean the West’s focus on the strategy of containing China in the form of a comprehensive economic, political, and military blockade. In this way, China should either prevent Russia from losing the war or open a new front in the battle with the US, which would seriously challenge the West.
In any case, the ongoing war in Ukraine will be more of an opportunity than a threat to China if its outcomes are managed. However, it should be noted that China’s military intervention in the Ukraine conflict would trigger a strong and unified response from the West. This response could deal a severe blow to China’s loss of its privileged position in the world, which was attained through mediation, and place it among the despised countries. In other words, intervening in the Ukraine war, which is not seen as a threat to China, would set a bad precedent, lead to the heightening of the fear of China in the countries of the global south, and ultimately, undermine Beijing’s efforts to challenge the international order in line with the past Western liberal internationalism, and severely weaken this country’s narrative of a fair and multilateral alternative international order.
Finally, as long as the current precarious balance remains unchanged; Chinese officials will eagerly observe the persistence of the war in Ukraine and the realization of their goals with their mediation capacity and will refrain from directly entering the conflict. But perhaps the time will come when the risks of military intervention will not deter Beijing from pursuing its threefold interests in the Ukraine war.