Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Does Not Put Beijing in a Bind
Not yet, anyway. The U.S. and its allies should trumpet Chinese leaders’ decision to partner with a pariah state.
We should not delude ourselves into believing that Putin has put Chinese leader Xi Jinping in a predicament by invading Ukraine. Beijing has successfully navigated previous Russian adventurism in Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Crimea, effectively insulating ties with Washington and its allies while staying aligned with Moscow where it mattered, specifically at the UN. Russian leader Vladimir Putin almost certainly appreciates that Beijing cannot join it in declaring Luhansk and Donetsk independent, just as China couldn’t endorse the previously mentioned conflicts because it would lose the veneer of neutrality that allows it to balance relations with all sides. The fact that Moscow waited until the conclusion of the 2022 Winter Olympics to invade Ukraine further indicates that Putin understands that Beijing can’t show outright support for Russian actions against Ukraine.
As it did during Russia’s previous incursions, Beijing has publicly called for restraint and continued dialogue, professing neutrality to maintain the maneuvering room it needs to preserve ties with both the West and Russia. In the UN, Beijing has followed its standard playbook for such crises: abstaining from relevant votes, neither casting a vote for U.S.-sponsored resolutions at the UN Security Council nor vetoing them outright. After all, there is no need for China to use its veto because Russia will do it. On Feb. 25, China abstained on a Security Council resolution that demanded Russia cease its aggression against Ukraine. Russia vetoed it.
At this time, there is no reason to believe that Chinese leaders will deviate from previous tactics. Nor should we be surprised if Beijing relaxes its efforts to maintain a veneer of neutrality, particularly following the remarkable Putin-Xi joint statement on Feb. 4. That statement made it clear that China and Russia are aligned not just on topics like NATO expansion but also on basic values and governance practices that underpin their diplomatic, commercial, and military activities globally, all of which have attracted increased scrutiny from Washington and its allies. That the statement doesn’t meet Western definitions of a formal alliance does not diminish how consequential this alignment will be to the U.S. ability to advance and protect its interests for the foreseeable future.
Nor should we take hope in various Chinese statements that Beijing might yet be pulled from Putin’s orbit; these should be seen merely as maneuvers to ensure they are able to talk to all sides of the conflict; On Feb. 19, for example, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at the Munich Security Conference that sovereignty and territorial integrity should be respected and that Ukraine is no exception. But on Feb. 24, Wang told his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov that China understands Russia’s legitimate security concerns.
It is also revealing to look at recent statements by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. U.S. officials would be remiss to forget that Beijing has been irresponsibly insinuating that the United States and NATO are really to blame for the Ukraine crisis, in line with Russian talking points, and has expressed its opposition to U.S. unilateral sanctions.
There may have been an argument that the United States should try to pry China from Moscow’s orbit by playing on China’s interest in preserving its international image. But this kind of conciliatory tack didn’t work in previous crises. If anything, Beijing over the last few years has appeared more comfortable being brazen, perhaps because it assesses that it can use its formidable propaganda and disinformation apparatus to distort the truth; during the current crisis, for example, it has sought to blame the world’s challenges on the United States.
Some may suggest that more recent signs of EU unity against Russia, including Germany’s decision to up military spending and send weapons to Ukraine, might press Beijing to break with Moscow to avoid being viewed by the international community as aligned with a pariah state. The only way that might work is if Washington and its allies make it so. This is not to say that we should automatically punish China as we do Russia over its role in Ukraine, although we do need to stay alert and be ready to apply punitive measures against Beijing should it help Moscow circumvent U.S. and allied sanctions. U.S. officials nevertheless should not buy into or propagate Beijing’s façade of neutrality and base any decision to engage and involve China—at minimum the level at which talks are held—on Chinese leaders halting their tacit support to Russia. Calling votes at the UN in hopes of forcing Beijing to reveal its position on the crisis ignores that China has a strategy for navigating this exact scenario, as highlighted in this article.
More effective would be to call out China’s position for what it is, ramping up public affairs efforts to push back against the harmful disinformation Beijing and Moscow are disseminating to deflect blame and support China’s narrative that it is a neutral party focused on finding a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
Gabriel Alvarado works at Pointe Bello, a strategic intelligence firm. He is also a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Global China Hub.
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