What China Is Actually Saying About Russia and Ukraine
Bits of pro-Russian rhetoric are a far cry from substantive support—or preparations for an invasion of Taiwan.
As the Ukraine crisis has progressed and negotiations play out between the U.S. and Russia, many analysts and politicians have weighed in on what role the planet’s other superpower will play. Their concerns have touched on everything from how China might influence Putin’s choices to whether Beijing might even take advantage of a crisis in Europe to follow through on its own threats of aggression toward Taiwan. However, these discussions have often been based more on supposition than the reality of China’s words and actions.
It has been reported, for example, that China’s Xi Jinping may have asked Russia to delay an invasion of Ukraine until after the Winter Olympics wrap up in Beijing in mid-February, though China and Russia have officially denied this. Whether or not such a conversation took place, as U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman pointed out, Putin will attend the Olympics and Xi “would not be ecstatic if Putin chose that moment to invade Ukraine.”
It remains unclear to what extent such considerations will weigh on Putin’s plans. After all, concern for China’s image did not stop him from invading Georgia during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. But Russia has since become increasingly reliant on China as a geopolitical and economic partner, particularly following the economic sanctions imposed on it by Western countries in recent years. Should Putin invade Ukraine, a new wave of sanctions will force Russia to lean even harder on Chinese trade and investment. In short, much like the overall Ukraine crisis, the question mostly turns on reading what is going on inside Putin’s mind.
Any discussion of coordinated timing also must note what has China actually said about the Ukraine conflict. The official readout of Foreign Minister’s Wang Yi’s phone call with Secretary of State Blinken illustrated how the regime is handling the crisis involving both its most powerful partner and most important strategic competitor.
On one hand, both Chinese media and government statements have tended to accept Russia’s framing of the issue. State media such as PLA Daily have recently run articles that present the U.S. and NATO as “provocateurs" in a “hybrid war” against Russia, painting Ukraine as their pawn. So too did Wang Yi stress that “Russia's legitimate security concerns should be taken seriously and addressed” and that “regional security should not be guaranteed by strengthening or even expanding military blocs.” China has also joined Russia in opposition to “unilateral” sanctions and attacked the U.S.’s “the Cold War mentality.”
But so far, this rhetoric has not translated into substantive support for Russia’s actions. Official statements from the Chinese government have repeatedly emphasized neutrality and a posture of non-intervention, the same stance it took in the 2014 Crimea crisis. Instead, Beijing has expressed support for a peaceful diplomatic solution in accordance with the terms of 2015’s Minsk II agreement.
This emphasis on diplomacy is consistent with Beijing’s desire to build an image as a responsible great power and a mediating force, in contrast to the Western penchant for military interventionism. For its own sake, China is also reluctant to get caught up in foreign entanglements (such as Ukraine) that do not directly affect its interests; this attitude is part of the reason it has no formal defense treaty with Russia or almost any other country.
More sensational theories speculate about a scenario in which China and Russia coordinate their invasions of Taiwan and Ukraine, respectively. In January, Rep. Mike McCaul, R-Texas, predicted that Russia would invade Ukraine “in the next month” and that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan would quickly follow the Olympics. On the surface, one can follow the logic. China and Russia are close partners who are increasingly unified in opposition to the United States and have stepped up joint military exercises in recent years. If both countries are planning aggressive moves that will draw Western opposition, it may behoove them to divide their shared adversary’s attention and resources.
However, thus far there has been no evidence to support this hypothesis. While China’s intensive forays into the airspace around Taiwan certainly do apply pressure, they do not prove that Beijing is prepared to launch an imminent invasion of the island. Efforts to wear down the air defenses of Taiwan, as well as Japan, through these repeated flights have been going on for years.
There are also very different calculations at play. Russia is probably correct in assuming that U.S. and NATO troops will not fight in Ukraine’s defense. By contrast, China is aware that invading Taiwan is far more likely to trigger a costly war with the United States, as well as possibly other Pacific powers such as Japan or Australia, which perceive Taiwan’s de facto independence to be important to their strategic and economic interests. President Biden even spoke of a commitment to defend Taiwan in October, in contradiction of his government’s official posture of strategic ambiguity and in contrast to his statements on not placing U.S. troops in Ukraine.
Finally, the two regimes do not perceive their respective conflicts on the same timescale. Most interpret Putin as motivated by a fear of a closing window of influence on the Ukrainian state, as it draws closer and closer to NATO and the West (in large part accelerated by his seizure of Crimea and other acts of aggression). Although China views “reunification” with Taiwan as a core interest and refuses to renounce a military option, this goal is not necessarily as urgent, all the more so because its military, political, economic and cultural power continues to grow in a way that Russia’s does not. If Beijing does not see an immediate need to act within the next few months or does not yet feel assured of a rapid victory, it is unlikely to allow Russia’s unrelated European ambitions to influence its own timetable.
More concretely, much as Russia’s military moves in the last several weeks telegraphed the crisis in Europe, any large-scale action against Taiwan would require weeks, if not months, of moving units into place in a way that would be impossible to hide. No mobilization of this scale has yet been seen. Finally, sea and weather conditions in the Taiwan Strait are abysmal in February, a major obstacle to invasion at this time.
In short, the publicly available evidence does not suggest that China is being drawn into the Russia-Ukraine conflict. China is unlikely to offer direct support for any Russian invasion of Ukraine, nor to bind its own Pacific military objectives or timeline to Russia’s European ones. Despite the close ties between Beijing and Moscow, the two partners understand that their alignment only extends as far as their shared interests.