Explained: What Is China’s Policy Toward The Ongoing Russia-Ukraine War
The Russia-Ukraine conflict is posing a huge challenge for China on many levels. In its public statement, the Chinese government has urged all sides to de-escalate tensions in Ukraine. Russia has abandoned all restraint, where does this leave China's official stance as tensions escalate?
The growing diplomatic ties between Russia and China were on display at the Winter Olympics, with Russian President Vladimir Putin being one of only a few prominent foreign leaders to attend. Putin, significantly, waited until after the Games to recognise the two breakaway regions of Ukraine.
Russia and China, the nuclear-armed neighbours, have grown closer in recent years. In 2001, The Treaty of Good Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation, signed by China and Russia, was the first agreement between the two countries since 1950. According to the treaty, China and Russia would "stay friends forever and never become enemies."
China and Russia have mainly adhered to the conditions of the treaty. By 2012, China had surpassed the United States as Russia's most important trading partner, with bilateral trade flows increasing by 11% year on year to about 50 billion dollars.
In 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, a Ukrainian territory with a predominantly Russian population, it was a watershed moment in Sino-Russian relations. Despite Russian policymakers' concerns about China's expansion in the Russian Far East and Central Asia, experts say that post-Crimea Western sanctions made collaboration with China a top priority for Russian officials.
While the West imposed sanctions on Russia, China strengthened its economic connections with its neighbour, negotiating a series of energy accords, including the 400 billion dollar Power of Siberia pact just three months after the annexation, that aided Russia's economic recovery.
Since 2014, Sino-Russian collaboration has only intensified. Bilateral trade flows reached an all-time high of 147 billion dollars last year, with energy products accounting for the vast majority of Russian exports to China. The two countries expect their bilateral commerce to reach 200 billion dollars by 2024.
Their partnership includes military cooperation, public relations strategy, and energy security, with the latest category gaining traction as Russia becomes a more important source of liquefied natural gas for China, the world's fastest expanding market for this fuel.
China's Stand on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China has issued a series of strong statements. It has not encouraged, but neither has it opposed, the Ukraine invasion. The ministry has repeatedly stated that the situation is complicated, sanctions are ineffective, and the West is mostly to blame for the war since it pushed Russia into a corner by expanding NATO into formerly Russian-controlled areas. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, speaking at the Munich Security Conference over the weekend, lashed out at the US, accusing "a particular power" of "stirring-up antagonism."
The invasion has placed China in a difficult position. Although China and Russia have strong economic connections, one of China's foreign policy pillars is respecting countries’ territorial integrity. "Any country's sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity should be respected and safeguarded, because this is a basic norm of international relations," Wang stated in answer to a question from conference Chairman Wolfgang Ischinger.
Experts believe that, despite China's efforts to portray itself as essentially neutral and advocate dialogue, its policies are actually a remarkable defence of Russia and represent the strengthening of Sino-Russian ties.
China's act of balance
China and Russia are the most essential strategic allies for each other. Their economies are complementary: China is a manufacturing power but lacks resources, necessitating Russian energy; Russia, on the other hand, has vast energy reserves but requires investment and assistance in extending its economic base. China has also been a big purchaser of Russian advanced weaponry.
Adding to the complexity, China also wants to keep good relations with the European Union (EU), especially as the US pushes the EU to adopt a more aggressive China policy. Experts also argue that China recognises that assisting Russia's invasion will exacerbate its already strained relations with wealthy democracies, such as the United States, EU countries, and Japan, which are its primary trading partners.
Xi and Putin, following their meeting ahead of the recently finished Winter Olympics in Beijing, published a lengthy joint declaration that was interpreted as announcing a new and closer friendship.
On February 4, Putin was the most significant guest of Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Beijing Winter Olympics opening ceremony. That day, they declared their cooperation had "no bounds" and issued a 5,000-word statement describing all of the areas where they agreed, but they made no mention of Ukraine.
The two sides also announced that they "strongly support each other" in dealing with "regional security challenges" and "international strategic stability," without mentioning the US specifically.The Global Times, China's state-run tabloid, published an article around the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis, accusing the US of "spouting war rhetoric to hype up war risks" and praising the Kremlin's "composure."
America in the debate
China is not backing Russia's foreign policy moves, but the cold relationship with Washington shows no signs of melting, according to Shi Yinhong, a professor of international affairs and director of Beijing's Renmin University of China's Center on American Studies.
"I believe the Chinese government will continue to prioritise China's own security over Russia's," Shi said. Meanwhile, relations with the United States will remain tense, particularly on the issue of Taiwan.
Beijing blames the rise in tensions with the US to what it describes as a false portrayal of China as a strategic rival. Russia reaffirmed its support for the One-China principle and stated that it opposes any form of Taiwanese independence. The statement also criticised the US's Indo-Pacific strategy for "forming closed bloc structures and opposing camps in the Asia-Pacific region" and "the negative impact."
An analogy between Ukraine and Taiwan
The Chinese government is believed to be closely studying the US response to Russia's activities for clues as to how the US would react if Beijing took action against Taiwan. China has dispatched military aircraft and staged frightening war simulations in the hopes of undermining support in Taiwan for de facto independence for the self-governing island.
Taiwan receives fighter jets, warships, and other weapons from the United States, which is legally obligated to consider threats to the island as "grave concerns." That does not rule out the idea of the US intervening militarily on Taiwan's behalf, with allies such as Australia and Japan potentially joining in a conflict.
However, China's foreign ministry has stated categorically that Ukraine and Taiwan are not the same. While China regards Taiwan as an inalienable part of its territory, Ukraine is regarded as a completely sovereign state.
Experts claim that if Russia can seize large sections of Ukraine or install a puppet regime while avoiding economic sanctions, it will empower Chinese nationalists to believe they can do the same.
Where does India stand?
It's easy to overstate and underestimate the Russia-China relationship in this situation with so many moving components. All players are hedging their bets in ways that are changing Europe and Asia's geopolitics in real time.
Although India's relationship with Russia is not what it once was, there is still much that both sides perceive as mutually beneficial. The agreement between Russia and China made no mention of China's border dispute with India, instead emphasising on the three countries' strengthening ties.
After the Russian-linked Redfish media teased a documentary that drew parallels between Kashmir and Palestine, The Russian embassy underlined that Redfish was not official media and reiterated that Kashmir was a bilateral matter for India and Pakistan. This followed just a day after Pakistan and China released a joint statement condemning India's "unilateral activities" in Jammu and Kashmir.
As one former Indian diplomat described it, taking sides in a conflict that has nothing to do with India would limit India's foreign policy options and weaken its own status as a rising global power.
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