Vladimir Putin’s aggressive invasions against Ukraine have prompted the West to launch an unprecedented series of sanctions. Such measures not only aim at isolating the Russian economy and deterring Russian invasions, but also attempt to exert pressure on China, which has been Russia’s important strategic partner but takes an ambiguous stance in the crisis. The United States, in particular, warns China not to provide Russia with material supplies. While China is clearly concerned about the potential repercussions brought by Russia’s invasion, it will remain reluctant to join the West’s anti-Russian call because of its interest-based calculations.
China’s communist regime’s behaviour comes from a realist calculation that considers the benefits and costs behind the action. China will carefully examine the payoff brought by aligning with either side, so as to maximise the capture of benefits and minimise the costs. Seeing how Russia is isolated and suppressed by the West, the Beijing government fully understands the consequences it can face if it explicitly supports Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Therefore, China has stayed extremely cautious in its speeches and stressed its neutrality in this military crisis, so as to avoid being perceived as a supporter of Russia and facing similar sanctions.
Nonetheless, such pressure is only sufficient to discourage China from leaning toward Russia, but not enough to push China to jump on the Anti-Russian bandwagon.
Since the West has been biased towards countries sharing Western values like democracy and freedom, China considers itself being discriminated against by the West, especially following Xi Jinping’s rise. Meanwhile, the West has been concerned about China’s shift from peaceful rise to aggressive expansion, which challenges the Western-dominated status quo. Particularly, the United States has been dissatisfied with China’s growing economic strength and diplomatic influence. The trade disputes and human rights suppressions in China have prompted the United States to condemn or impose sanctions on China. China has regarded such measures as being unfair and hegemonic, which has led to tension and distrust between the West and China. This has already built up a barrier against cooperation, which discourages China from being the West’s partner in the military crisis.
Moreover, longing to build up a China-led world order, China has been eager to take leading roles and raise its discursive power on the international scene. Nonetheless, the international organisations and the sanction discussions are mainly led by the West. Thus, the West’s anti-Russian call can be seen as an attempt to restore Western leadership, which is declining in recent years following the rise of China and other developing countries. Such distrust can further make China reluctant to join the West’s sides, so as to avoid shaping a perception that Beijing comes under Western leadership.
Apart from looking into Sino-Western relations, we can also explain China’s tendency to stay neutral by examining its relations with Russia. Given such unfriendly relations between China and the West, China has been seeking strategic and cooperative relations with Russia, which also faces Western suppression and desires to alter the Western-dominated international order. Russia has been an important asset to China because of its technological power, diplomatic ties, and its great discursive power in the international community brought by its high status in the United Nations (e.g. permanent seat and veto power in the United Nations Security Council). Therefore, China has been actively expanding its partnership with Russia. For instance, China has extended the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation and established a “no-limit” friendship. It hopes that building closer relations with Russia can provide China with more solid support in its rivalry with the West.
Clearly, Russia’s invasion has violated Ukraine’s territorial integrity. Supporting Russia in the war could put China vulnerable to economic and diplomatic isolation, which could result in a further deterioration in its already poor relations with the West. Thus, China will not be willing to explicitly defend Putin’s invasion. Such reluctance can be demonstrated by China’s abstention in the United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning Russia’s invasion.
However, betraying Russia and joining the international anti-Moscow chorus is not beneficial to China at all. A Sino-Soviet split will be equivalent to sacrificing China’s past efforts in strengthening its partnership with Moscow, whose full support is considered crucial to China in competing with the West, especially the United States. It will lose a powerful partner with great exposure in the international arena to help defend itself from Western suppression or distrust. Therefore, China is unlikely to become entirely anti-Russian in the military crisis simply to please the West, which has been hostile to China in recent years.
Undeniably, China wants to avoid direct conflicts with the West, so the Beijing government is unlikely to bail the Moscow regime out despite their close partnership. However, given its distrust of the West, China is also not tempted to join the West’s anti-Russia alliance which allows the West to restore the West-led world order and suppress China’s important strategic partner. While the world has been divided into two sides, China is incentivised to stay cautiously neutral. Instead of sticking to either camp, China will strive to bring Russia and Ukraine to the negotiation table as well as to call for de-escalation of the military crisis, so as to avoid the day it has to decide between supporting a particular side from coming.
Ho Ting (Bosco) Hung is a Research Assistant at the Department of Government of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). He is a member of the International Team for the Study of Security Verona. Recently, he has presented at the Oxford Hong Kong Forum 2022 and he has written for International Policy Digest, Modern Diplomacy, The Geopolitics, and International Affairs Forum.