UPDATE: The Asian Survey special double issue “The Impact of the Ukraine War on Asia” is now available, and free to read for a limited time.

by Sheena Chestnut Greitens, author of an article in Asian Survey‘s forthcoming special November/December 2022 double issue, “The Impact of the Ukraine War on Asia.”

In early February 2022, China and Russia reaffirmed their high-level strategic partnership. Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine on February 24th, however, almost immediately put that partnership at odds with its principles—phrases like territorial integrity, sovereignty, and non-interference that are often listed as core Chinese principles, but that also appeared in the joint statement—as well as with Xi’s assumed desire to keep the economy on a broadly positive trajectory amid a major COVID outbreak and the approaching Party Congress in the fall. 

China’s framing of the conflict has been closely aligned with Russia’s—alignment that is more than rhetorical, given the centrality of information strategies to the unfolding course of conflict. Chinese officials and news outlets have studiously avoided calling Russia’s action an invasion, consistently blamed the United States and NATO for “instigating” the crisis, opposed the use of sanctions to pressure Putin to change course, and amplified Russian disinformation claims about U.S. support for biological weapons programs in Ukraine. Pro-Russian, anti-American messages dominate China’s domestic social media landscape. Ukrainians have little agency; Xi’s reported proposal in his 3/18 phone call with President Biden, that the US and NATO negotiate with Russia about Ukraine (seemingly, without Ukraine in the room), emblematizes Beijing’s great-power focus.  

China’s diplomatic actions in international institutions have also leaned increasingly toward Moscow. In the initial UN General Assembly vote, the PRC abstained, essentially opting to free-ride on a Russian veto (and only agreeing to that after references to Chapter VII were removed). China abstained on the UN Human Rights Council vote, but stated its opposition. Beijing did vote alongside Russia against the IAEA resolution, and Chinese and Russian jurists were the only two (in a 13-2 ruling) to oppose the ICJ’s order that Russia immediately halt all military action in Ukraine. Development banks are the possible exception—but AIIB pausing its loans likely reflects a multilateral stakeholdership structure in which NATO countries carry almost as much weight as China, meaning that it’s a mistake to read that as a “Chinese” decision at all.  

Inaction is important as well. While Beijing has said it “hopes” for a solution to a crisis that is “not what it wanted to see,” it has not taken any visible actions to mediate, in contrast to other leaders; the February 25th Xi-Putin phone call suggested that Beijing supported Russia’s proposal for negotiations, rather than vice versa, though Chinese diplomats are now suggesting that they’ve taken a more active role encouraging Moscow behind the scenes. Beijing has not assigned much if any responsibility to Putin or his government—compared to clear, consistent blame levied at NATO—and has not issued any known warnings of consequences that might meaningfully alter Moscow’s calculus or trajectory. China has agreed to provide a limited amount of humanitarian aid to Ukraine, but only after an initial fortnight in which it spent more time pressuring Kyiv to take time away from fighting an invasion to help evacuate Chinese citizens that it had failed to warn in preceding weeks.   

Below the official level, the picture is more complicated. Chinese banks, businesses, and corporations have largely complied with sanctions, consistent with the past behavior of Chinese actors and the reality that China is deeply integrated into the global economic system, with interests in Europe and beyond that dwarf bilateral economic relations with Russia. In cases where current sanctions allow, Chinese actors have moved to capitalize on market opportunities—such as Unionpay stepping in to replace Mastercard and Visa. Other Chinese telecommunications operators, like Huawei and ZTE, have continued to provide services in Ukraine. Self-interest, not solidarity, appears to be the obvious principle at work in these decisions. 

The military realm is perhaps the biggest uncertainty in assessing China’s current and future level of commitment to its bilateral partnership with Russia. As of late March 2022, media reports cited both U.S. and European leaders believing that China had agreed to supply military aid to Russia, reports that Moscow and Beijing denied.

Thus, while pundits have tried to repeatedly read a shift in Beijing’s position from CGTN tweets, China’s position since the war began has been, to use its own words, consistent. The China-Russia partnership is not a comfortable one, but it does not need to be in order to be durable. Thus far, slight rhetorical adjustments have not signaled any fundamental strategic recalibration, and whatever internal debate might exist, it is having little impact on the formal position of the party-state.

Watch for Sheena Chestnut Greitens’s article in Asian Survey‘s forthcoming special November/December 2022 double issue, “The Impact of the Ukraine War on Asia.” You may also be interested in reading her Asian Survey article, coauthored with Benjamin Katzeff Silberstein, “Toward Market Leninism in North Korea: Assessing Kim Jong Un’s First Decade.”

There are at least three possible explanations for the consistency of China’s position on the war. One may be that the Chinese political system has simply not had time to absorb the multiple shocks that the war in Ukraine has generated and recalibrate what its interests are. This scenario holds the most promise for the possibility that the unexpectedly poor battlefield performance of the Russians and swift international response will eventually impel China to recalculate. It is, however, far from clear what timeframe this reorientation will occur on, and opportunities to shape world order are not monotonic; it’s possible that Beijing will simply miss its window while the rest of the world reorganizes quickly around it. Another explanation focuses on regime type and decision-making, with a more pessimistic prognosis: it suggests that an information-sclerotic, personalist regime locked itself into a major strategic alignment on February 4th that, for reasons of regime security, it cannot realistically undo under the current leadership. Under this scenario, little change would be expected before the fall, and potentially not under the current Chinese leadership at all.

A third explanation, similarly pessimistic, is that Russia and China share a view of the “principal contradiction,” one oriented around the need to counter the United States and its allies and partners, who ring the Eurasian landmass from NATO in the west to the American alliance structure in Asia in the east. On the latter point, the Feb. 4th statement provides a clear sense of parallelism in Russia and China’s willingness to cooperate against “external influence” on their periphery when such influence undermines their perceived security. The key sentence read, “Russia and China stand against attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions, intend to counter interference by outside forces in the internal affairs of sovereign countries under any pretext, oppose colour revolutions, and will increase cooperation in the aforementioned areas.” From China’s standpoint, the more effort the U.S. and its allies have to devote to Europe, the better China’s position will be; there is no reason Beijing should help solve American strategic dilemmas if the result would be renewed focus on strategic competition with China.

Future months will provide more evidence by which to characterize China’s behavior, explain its choices, and test what costs it is willing to bear for those choices. The likely explanations for Beijing’s behavior thus far, however, do not seem to bode well for the prospects of China changing course—a prediction that, if borne out, scholars and strategists will likely grapple with for years or even decades to come.