Ukraine invasion: why China is more likely to support Russia than in the past

This article was written by Natasha Kuhrt (KCL) and Marcin Kaczmarski (University of Glasgow)
This article was published on
Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping

China’s general approach to Russian actions in its neighbouring regions has been to minimise its involvement. After Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, Beijing refused to recognise declarations of independence by the de facto states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, for instance.

Today, faced with a growing number of restrictions already imposed on Chinese firms by the US, Beijing may be more willing to provide an economic lifeline to Russia, and President Putin’s cronies in particular. China has tended to be highly critical of sanctions in general, and in particular those imposed by the US on Russia.

Following the annexation of Crimea, Beijing offered political support to Moscow, but acted with restraint when it came to the provision of economic relief for fear of Chinese companies being targeted by secondary sanctions.

In Ukraine, there have been suggestions that China might help Russia behind the scenes. But it is as yet unclear how far China would go to assist Russia in this respect.

Ukraine’s economic relationship

While Ukraine is an important economic partner for China and a major supplier of agricultural goods, Beijing must have realised the barriers to its influence. Political relations have remained low key since Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution in 2014, which was regarded by the Chinese elite as yet another example of a western-sponsored action.

Ukraine has provided military technology to China that Russia was unwilling to sell, but the growing US influence in Kyiv slowed down military technological cooperation between the two states. Trying to prevent technology transfer, the US in effect torpedoed the sale of the Ukrainian engine manufacturer, Motor Sich, to the Chinese company Skyrizon Aircraft.

In 2014, after Russia annexed Crimea, the Chinese reaction was muted, with China abstaining on the condemnation of the annexation in the United Nations Security Council. However, China has not given any explicit recognition to Russia’s incorporation of Crimea. Indeed, at the time Beijing accused the west of double standards.

The Chinese ministry of foreign affairs took its time to formulate its position relating to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022. When it finally issued a statement, while not explicitly approving of Russia’s actions, Beijing suggested that the US had been “pouring oil” on the flames of the conflict and “hyping up” the prospect of war. China, it said, had instead been urging the parties to adhere to the Minsk Agreements and requesting de-escalation.

Foreign minister Wang Yi, speaking by phone with Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, declared general support for “sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries” adding that “China recognizes the complex and special historical context of the Ukraine issue”.

The wording resembled Beijing’s reaction to the annexation of Crimea, but in the current context, it can be interpreted as China’s indirect support for Russia’s use of military force. The fact that Russia doesn’t have to worry about its eastern flank has also helped, as Moscow could move troops from the eastern military district to help with troop build-up around Ukraine.

China is one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council with veto rights and responsibility for international peace and security. China is increasingly positioning itself as a “global responsible power” and taking a more active role in international affairs in keeping with its economic power. For example, it is participating in UN peacekeeping missions and urging mediation and diplomacy in international disputes. This image may become harder to maintain as the military conflict in Ukraine escalates.

China will also be watching carefully for the United States’ response. Some suggest this may be a proxy for how the US might react to any Chinese action over Taiwan, but the two situations should not be conflated as they have their own dynamics. Washington’s commitment to Taiwan’s defence is stronger than to Ukraine’s.

The US/China relationship

The deteriorating Sino-American relationship is the main factor in Beijing’s implicit approval of Russia’s attack against Ukraine. Back in 2014, China was deepening its political and economic engagement with the US and the European Union. Beijing began building its own multilateral institutions, such as the Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, hoping to gradually gain more say in the international order. Peaceful unification with Taiwan ruled by the Kuomintang (a Taiwanese political party) looked feasible.

But today, China and the US clash in a number of fields, from the South China Sea to cyberspace and technology. Beijing has scaled down its outward investment. European states, in turn, have grown suspicious of Chinese intentions, with the EU terming China an “economic competitor” and a “systemic rival” in some areas of the relationship.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Progressive Party ruling Taiwan since 2016 is determined to maintain de facto independence, especially after Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong demonstrated the emptiness of the “one country, two systems” principle.

Early in February, Putin and Xi met at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. Some have suggested that Putin was waiting for the Games to finish before commencing an invasion of Ukraine. Whether the Olympics was a factor is debatable. Nonetheless, Russia’s military attack on Ukraine creates a useful distraction, drawing the US attention away from China, just days after Washington published its new Indo-Pacific strategy.

Overall, China has less to lose from supporting Russia’s aggressive foreign policy than it had a decade ago.

This article was first published by The Conversation and is reproduced here with kind permission.