Everything seems to indicate that Chinese leaders do not appreciate Vladimir Putin’s decision to force the Russian army into Ukraine. There is no way of knowing in what terms the President of the Russian Federation informed Xi Jinping of the attack he would launch on Ukraine when he came to Beijing on February 4 to launch the Olympics in “winter” to attend.
The two leaders spoke for nearly three hours, and the joint statement released afterward makes it clear that China and Russia had one goal in mind: to strengthen their ties.
In the economic field, fifteen major contracts have been signed. Especially China, the second largest economy in the world, needs gas. It annually imports 48 billion cubic meters from Russia and has decided to increase this number by 10 billion.
Likewise, China will import another 100 million tons of Russian oil. With these contracts, Vladimir Putin seems to have wanted to compensate for the cessation of Europe’s purchase of Russian raw materials. He knew this predictable stop as soon as he decided to invade Ukraine.
In addition, this joint statement discusses in detail: “entering a new era of international business”† Beijing and Moscow believe the world should be “multipolar” and say they are in favor of “authentic democracy”† A “cold war approach” of the United States is denounced, then China and Russia show their mutual support on certain points. It is written that “Taiwan is an inalienable part of China”† as underlined “a resistance to any future NATO expansion”†
But in this text, co-signed by the two leaders, the name of Ukraine does not appear. Even if Vladimir Putin announced to his Chinese host that he planned to invade this country, it was probably not appropriate or necessary to allude to it in any official document. In Beijing, the Russian leader probably had the primary aim of strengthening the goodwill of his interlocutors towards his country.
Then, it seems it was important for Vladimir Putin to show what he is capable of, this demonstration should be clear to all countries, including China. Today’s Russia is far from the economic power of China. But by bringing his tanks into Ukraine, Vladimir Putin appears at the head of a country that remains a military power.
Within reasonable distance
Only since February 24, when the offensive was launched in Ukraine, has China behaved as an extremely lukewarm, even shameful ally of Russia. Certainly, the Chinese leaders are adopting some of Moscow’s arguments. They cautiously avoid talking about an invasion of Ukraine. They prefer to use the terms used by the Russians of“special military operation”†
For his part, Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, stated on February 25 that, given the expansion of NATO that has taken place in Eastern Europe over the past thirty years, “Russia’s legitimate security claims must be properly addressed”†
So many words that give Chinese diplomacy the impression that it is partly standing next to Russia. In addition, in the economic field, China fully maintains its trade relations with Russia.
But at the same time, China is calling its “neutrality”† As such, Wang Yi “Strongly advocates respect for and protection of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries” […]that also applies to Ukraine”† In the name of respect for the principle of state sovereignty, China refuses any interference in their internal affairs.
Beijing therefore proposes to the parties in the presence of: “to resolve disputes peacefully through dialogue and consultation” and all this in “respecting the principles of the UN Charter”† So when the UN Security Council met to draft resolutions condemning Russia, Russia naturally vetoed it. But China has not done the same. She has always preferred to abstain.
Under these circumstances, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin spoke on the phone on February 25. And CCTV, China Television, reported that the Chinese president said he did not approve of the attack on Ukraine, reiterating that he was in favor of “Russia and Ukraine solve this problem through dialogue”†
China on a wire
Other factors, of an economic nature, are preventing China from approving Russian intervention in Ukraine. First, from the beginning of the conflict, the Chinese leaders noted that the countries of the European Union unanimously spoke out against Russia and decided on sanctions against Russia. There is no doubt, however, that China is too close to Moscow from Europe. The main customer base for Chinese products is on this continent and they don’t want to cut themselves off from that.
On the other side, there is Ukraine. Until the current events, China was the country’s first commercial partner, facing Russia. In 2021, a bilateral agreement was signed between Beijing and Kiev under the Chinese framework of the “New Silk Roads”, which provided for significant Chinese investment in Ukraine in railways, airports and ports, as well as in telecommunications infrastructure.
In return, China has acquired all kinds of Ukrainian-made military equipment from Ukraine for the past twenty years. Also, significant quantities of maize, barley and soybeans for animals in Ukraine are purchased by China. The latter planned to double its purchases of Ukrainian wheat in the coming years.
These are all elements that explain why Beijing has taken the decision to adopt the most balanced stance possible between Russia and Ukraine. On March 2, Wang Yi reported that he had spoken to his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba, on the phone and told him “I deeply regret the outbreak of the conflict between Ukraine and Russia” And his “extremely attentive to the damage suffered by civilians”†
China goes so far as to propose a ceasefire and then arbitration between the Russian and Ukrainian leaders. On March 7, Wang Yi said his country was ready to hold talks between Russia and Ukraine. “as soon as possible”adding that this proposal is linked to “China’s friendship with Russia”† Some Chinese media think that Ukraine would be in favor of this Chinese mediation.
Towards a role of mediator
All of this illustrates an important shift in Chinese diplomacy, according to Jean-Pierre Cabestan, sinologist and research director of the National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS). “We see the Chinese position clearly evolving”† he said. “At first she was very pro-Russian and accused the Americans of being responsible for the crisis. From now on, China wants to present itself as a mediator between Moscow and Kiev. This is an impressive development, probably as a result of debate and criticism within the Chinese Communist Party. But I don’t think Putin will accept this mediation: he would rather negotiate directly with the Ukrainians, whom he considers compatriots, and he sees no reason why the Chinese should come to interfere in this matter.
Anyway, just to make it clear that it doesn’t abide by Russia’s belligerent behavior, China has recently gone so far as to bring about a real turnaround on the United States. For years, Chinese diplomacy and the press had been accustomed to denouncing American positions in many areas of international policy. But suddenly, since Russian troops moved into Ukraine, Beijing’s tone has softened.
The impetus for this change of tone is given by the memory that fifty years ago, in February 1972, the President of the United States, Richard Nixon, had traveled to China to meet the Chinese leader Mao Zedong, ending twenty years of estrangement between the two countries. On the occasion of this historic event, the Guangming Ribao, a daily newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party, published the 1er March an editorial with the following title: “The trend of win-win cooperation in China-US relations is irreversible”.
This article explains that the economic development and stability of the world cannot do without the cooperation between China and America and believes that “China-US relations have become one of the closest bilateral relations in the world, with some of the most extensive areas of cooperation and key common interests”† At the same time, a message from the official Xinhua agency lists a series of twinning between Chinese and American cities that it qualifies as perfect successes.
Strong economic challenges
It is clear that China is stepping up its efforts not to become deeply involved in the Russia-launched war in Ukraine. This is clearly a principled priority that is confirmed by the Chinese regime. In his book Tomorrow China: war or peace?explains Jean-Pierre Cabestan: “the idea of a path for China’s peaceful development in an increasingly multipolar and globalized world has been central since Xi Jinping came to power […]† In fact, any war, even a local one, would likely slow the economic development and rise of the People’s Republic to power. It is undoubtedly a priority for the world’s second-largest economic power not to risk cutting itself off from the significant trade links it maintains with the West.
The question may even arise as to whether China has an interest in helping to ease the sanctions now weighing on Russia. Vladimir Putin, when he came to Beijing on February 4, may not have revealed the magnitude of the attack he was about to launch against Ukraine. For his part, it would be surprising if Xi Jinping promised to support the Russian economy in the face of Western sanctions.
In any case, Chinese diplomacy has visibly sought its place in this conflict since the beginning of the Russian offensive. And it doesn’t seem that this Russian military intervention in Ukraine and the responses it provokes in the world are an example for China to follow in the direction of Taiwan. At least not right away.