How Does China View the Russia-Ukraine Crisis?


The latest U.S. intelligence indicates that Russia is nearing completion of preparations for a large-scale invasion of Ukraine. This could lead to the deaths of up to 500,000 Ukrainian nationals and create up to 5 million refugees, resulting in a tragic humanitarian crisis. With Russia dispatching combat troops to the Russian-Ukrainian and Belarusian-Ukrainian borders, the question of whether the Russian-Ukrainian crisis will degenerate into a war, and whether and how the United States and NATO will intervene, has suddenly become the focus of global attention.

Despite the fact that European leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz have been in constant contact with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and the Kremlin has repeatedly denied any plans to invade, Russia and Western countries such as the United States have continued to dispatch troops to Ukraine or to provide assistance, pushing the crisis into even more unimaginable terrain. On Feb. 12, the U.S. Department of State announced the evacuation of the embassy in Kyiv, and President Joe Biden indicated even more directly when Russia would start the war. What Washington is now wondering is whether Putin could position his troops at the Russian-Ukrainian and Belarusian-Ukrainian borders and then simply do nothing.

This is also happening in spite of the fact that Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping met at the Winter Olympics in Beijing and issued a joint communiqué reiterating dissatisfaction with the U.S.-dominated international order, and aiming to strengthen energy cooperation between Russia and China in light of possible U.S. and Western sanctions against Moscow, which would be bound to affect Russian exports of crude oil and natural gas. However, neither the talks nor the communiqué made any mention of Ukraine, so it could be argued that Beijing is uncertain about military intervention or heightened crisis.

How China Views the 2 Russian Military Operations: Can Historical Experience Explain China’s Attitude?

On Aug. 8, 2008, the opening day of the Beijing Summer Olympics, Russia invaded South Ossetia in Georgia in response to conflict over the South Ossetia’s aspiration to join NATO. This was the first time since the collapse of the former Soviet Union that Russia had deployed troops abroad.

The Russo-Georgian war of 2008 lasted only a few days, but resulted in the deaths of around 1,600 Georgians and the displacement of tens of thousands. At the heart of the conflict lay NATO’s commitment to admitting both Ukraine and Georgia to the alliance, a position that angered Russia, with Putin seeing any expansion toward Russia’s borders as a security threat, even though the West emphasized the fact that NATO was a purely defensive organization. Eight years later, in 2014, Russia launched a more comprehensive military operation against Ukraine, occupying Crimea and eastern Ukraine’s Donbass region.

After the Georgian War, China refused to acknowledge the independent status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia on the grounds that it amounted to support for separatism and indirectly encouraged separatism within China’s borders. Moreover, the conflict rocked the international order and adversely affected China’s interests.

Beijing did not provide a head-on response to the Crimean crisis of 2014. Then Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang merely stated his “reiteration of China’s adherence to the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries and respect for Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.” During his meeting with Putin, Xi stated that, “Russia can coordinate with all parties to promote a political solution to the issue and safeguard regional and global peace and stability.” China’s attitude toward U.S.-Russian relations is in fact quite clear: It does not want a conflict between the United States and Russia, but it is also not happy to see cooperation between Washington and Moscow.

China Repositions Itself as a Participant in Global Security

Beijing’s attitude can more or less be gleaned from the joint statement issued by Xi and Putin after their Winter Olympics meeting. First, China opposes NATO expansion to the east, marking the first time China has ever expressed itself unequivocally on the matter. Second, China and Russia have grave concerns about the AUKUS trilateral security pact, particularly in relation to regional stability issues brought on by nuclear-powered submarines. Third, China and Russia concur that the United States should withdraw from a series of important arms control agreements and that Washington should respond to Moscow’s proposal that it abandon plans to deploy intermediate and short-range missiles in the Asia-Pacific and in Europe. Finally, China and Russia both oppose a return to an era of great power competition in the international order and hold that international issues should be resolved by consensus, while Beijing and Moscow strengthen their foreign policy coordination. China has redefined its role as a participant in global security.

China and Ukraine established diplomatic relations in 1992, and Ukraine has since joined China’s Belt and Road Initiative; China is already its largest trading partner and remains reluctant to intervene or interfere in the internal affairs of other countries. In 2016, China opened the Ukrainian port of Chornomorsk on the Black Sea, invested in the construction of a $400 million passenger railway connecting Kyiv and Boryspil International Airport, and saw two Chinese solar energy companies setting up solar farms in Ukraine. In other words, the China-Ukraine relationship is getting stronger and is expected to be worth $20 billion by 2025. Furthermore, China does not want the Russia-Ukraine crisis to cast a pall over its Winter Olympics motto of “Together for a Shared Future.”

Beijing is not happy with regional tensions and should not support Moscow’s forcible intervention in Ukraine. “Non-intervention or non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs” was originally proposed in 1955 by then Premier of China’s State Council Zhou Enlai and has since become one of the principles of Chinese foreign policy. It is in this context that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has stated that Russia’s legitimate security concerns should be taken seriously and should be addressed, and Beijing has pointed out that Washington is ignoring Moscow’s pursuit of security and challenging Russia’s security interests in Eastern Europe. China’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations Zhang Jun also disagrees with the U.S. view of Russia as a threat to international peace, stating, “Our message is consistent and clear: Resolve all disputes through diplomacy … Russia’s legitimate concerns over security must be taken seriously.”

In diplomatic parlance, therefore, China’s attitude has always been one of caution, and has tended to resolve crises diplomatically. In other words, it is not happy to see the escalation of the Russia-Ukraine crisis.

A New International Order Taking Shape

The international order is not an established concept, but the result of norms developed through the interaction of states and actors around the world. The scholar Alastair Iain Johnston has proposed eight categories of the international order, namely the constructive, the military, the political, the developmental, the commercial, the financial, the environmental and the informational. Of these eight sub-orders, China now tends to support six, while offering different views on political and social development, Beijing having different views and positions regarding human rights and democracy.

To Russia and China, the United States’ Afghanistan implosion and withdrawal of troops symbolize the possibility of the collapse of the U.S.-led international order. As a result, Moscow and Beijing are seeking a new European and Indo-Pacific order that is in keeping with their respective interests. Putin’s Russia is attempting to regain its status as a great power, while China is striving to become a powerhouse so it can compete with the United States in areas including big data, 5G telecommunication networks, nanotechnology and biotechnology, robotics, and the Internet of Things.

For China and Russia, establishing a new international order depends not just on hard power, but also on the emergence of a series of soft powers, such as ideology and culture. While Western countries advocate the universality of democracy and human rights, Russian and Chinese thinking hold that different civilizations or cultures should be allowed to develop in different ways.

Moscow and Beijing contend that the current international order is one in which the United States seeks to extend Western democracy and human rights to the world, by military force, if necessary, whereas the Russian and Chinese international orders have a regional basis with the concept of building buffers to maintain national interests. Russia and China differ, in that Russia is more willing to take military risks than China. Ukraine may seem like an Eastern European or U.S.-Russia problem, but in reality, it is a struggle over international order.

The allure of the Beijing Winter Olympics has now been overshadowed by the dark clouds of the Russia-Ukraine crisis. China now has the ability and the influence to construct a conflict resolution model using Chinese characteristics, and should play an active role in the Russia-Ukraine crisis. With Macron and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s efforts to mediate having failed to bear any fruit, China could mediate between the United States and Russia, or between Russia and NATO, and apply the “consultative intervention” approach, proposed by Chinese scholars, to intercede between Russia and Ukraine on the principles of consultation, dialogue, consensus, respect for sovereignty and non-interference — a model that could be the future of cross-strait interaction.

The author is an associate professor at Shih Chien University’s Department of Accounting and Taxation, Taiwan.

The views expressed above do not represent the position of the Want Want China Times Media Group.

About this publication


About Matthew McKay 42 Articles
A British citizen and raised in Switzerland, Matthew received his honors degree in Chinese Studies from the University of Oxford, UK. Following a 15-year stint in the corporate sector, he went on to earn his MA in Chinese Languages, Literature and Civilization at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, and is an Associate of both the Chartered Institute of Linguists and the Institute for Translation and Interpreting, as well as a Fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society, in the UK. Apart from Switzerland, he has lived in the UK, Taiwan and Germany, and his hobbies include literary translation, language teaching, and sampling cuisine from around the world.

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