GP Short Notes

GP Short Notes # 622, 20 March 2022

China: A careful strategy on Russia and Ukraine
Avishka Ashok

What happened?
On 18 March, US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping held a video conference to discuss the crisis in Eastern Europe and other bilateral issues between the countries. Xi encouraged the US and NATO to engage with Russia directly to resolve the Ukraine issues. President Xi referred to the situation and said: “Let he who tied the bell on the tiger’s neck take it off.” He used the well-known Chinese proverb to imply that the US and NATO must undo their actions to bring peace in the region. A senior official from the US referred to the call and said: “The president really laid out in a lot of detail the unified response from not only governments around the world, but also the private sector to Russia’s brutal aggression in Ukraine.” Xi Jinping also spoke of the Taiwan issue and said: “If the Taiwan issue is not handled properly, it will have a subversive impact on the relationship between the two.” 

On 16 March, Global Times reported that Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian addressed a press briefing and warned the US against sanctioning China. He reprimanded the US for its double standards where it threatened to impose sanctions and aimed at better trade and cooperation. On the same day, the Guardian reported that the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison had confirmed the decision to support its allies and partners in imposing sanctions on China if Beijing decides to supply weapons to Russia.

On 17 March, Zhao Lijian in a press briefing responded to Japan’s remarks urging China to be responsible on Ukraine’s crisis. Japan also imposed sanctions on Russia and the US, and other countries for its actions in Ukraine.

On 14 March, the US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and China’s top diplomat and member of the Political Bureau Yang Jiechi held a seven hour-long meeting in Rome to discuss China’s military aid to Russia and its consequences to Ukraine. The Whitehouse readout said: “Sullivan raised a range of issues in US-China relations, with substantial discussion of Russia’s war against Ukraine. They also underscored the importance of maintaining open lines of communication between the United States and China.”

On 15 March, Xinhua Net reported on the meeting in Rome and said that the officials discussed bilateral issues and other issues of international and regional importance. The report mentioned speaking about the cooperation over the Taiwan issue, Korean Peninsula nuclear issue, Iran nuclear issue and the Afghanistan issue. The Chinese media barely said the discussion on Ukraine. 

What is the background?
First, recent interactions between China and Russia. President Vladimir Putin visited China and met with President Xi Jinping during the Beijing Winter Olympics. The relations between the two countries have continued to remain strong due to several factors, including China’s energy dependence, bilateral trade, science, space and technology cooperation and other political engagements. China has promised to invest USD 400 billion in Gazprom during the next three decades. 

Second, China’s position on sanctions against Russia.  During the telephonic conversations with the European countries such as France, Germany, the UK and Italy, China repeatedly emphasized its disagreement with the imposition of unilateral sanctions and stressed the futility of sanctions in the international order. Beijing is worried about the fallouts for China of sanctions on Russia. 

Third, China’s position on Ukraine. On 2 March, the United Nations adopted a resolution demanding Russia to unconditionally withdraw from Ukraine. China abstained from voting for the resolution, along with 35 countries . Even though China is Ukraine’s largest trading partner and has maintained good relations with the country, Russia's economic and political relations could possibly override its relations with Ukraine. 

Fourth importance of Ukraine for China. China’s position is influenced by its investments in Ukraine through the Belt and Road Initiative. Beijing has invested in the rail corridor, which is crucial in connecting Europe with Central Asia and eventually China. China is also involved in building Ukraine’s ports, skyscrapers, railroads, highways, bridges, airports, dams and power plants. Ukraine is also a significant trading juncture for China as 80 per cent of the products pass through the former. 

What does it mean?
China’s response is measured. It has economic interests in Russia and is keen to prevent any fallouts to its investments due to sanctions on Russia. On the other hand, China also has an economic interest in Ukraine, through the BRI.

The Chinese media and other research institutes believe that the meeting in Rome aimed to force China to pick a side on the issue. However, the outcome of the meeting did not change China’s neutral stance as it continues to portray the issue as a grey area. Although the US placed heightened emphasis on the crisis in Eastern Europe, China seems to have downplayed the urgency of the issue during the meeting in Rome. 

The threat of sanctions and the economic implications on its domestic economy are major contributors to China’s mild approach to the issue. China wishes to remain uninvolved in the war. However, given its relations with Russia and Ukraine and the role played by China as a major superpower, remaining neutral may not be an option in this war.