China's Policy on the Russo-Ukraine War: a Conflict of Interest

February 2, 2023
UkraineWorld spoke to Oleksiy Koval, international journalist, China specialist.

Key points - in our brief, #UkraineWorldAnalysis:

1. On China's aspirations to improve its relations with the Western world

  • China has set a goal of improving relations with the US and Europe this year. China got a new foreign minister at the end of last year. Thus, China is trying to soften its international image. Moreover, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken will visit China on February 5, in accordance with the agreement reached between Presidents Xi and Biden at the G20 summit.
  • There are two aspects that determine whether China will manage to improve its relations with the West: 1. China's relations with Russia. China is trying to maintain its partnership with Russia while also improving relations with Europe and the US. 2. China seeks to act as an equal partner in negotiations. However, China refuses to even recognize the fact of Russian aggression against Ukraine, a policy which has proven to be a non-starter with the US and EU and a significant obstacle in improving relations.
  • When China saw that its position met with disapproval from the EU as a whole, it started working to influence individual EU states - like Germany, Greece, and Hungary - in order to try to shake the EU policy consensus and soften the policy for China. China's policy is aimed at breaking EU unity and strengthening the role of individual players through which it can influence and get between the relations between the EU and the US. But the Russian invasion of Ukraine has brought the US and EU closer together, which is a diplomatic loss for China.

2. On the trade partnership between China and Russia

  • China remains Russia's main trading partner, as it can fill profitable niches left by the departure of European companies from the Russian market. China is taking advantage of Russia's weakness and making it even more dependent. China is looking for areas in which it can cooperate with Russia in order to avoid secondary sanctions. For example, it supplied equipment for gas extraction in the north of Russia, but has decided to withdraw from these projects.
  • This year, China is returning to buying Australian coal, which means that Russia will dump its prices even more. Russia has no leverage to use with China beyond appealing to China's anti-Western views.

3. On the lessons China has learned from the Russian-Ukrainian war

  • China was surprised by the solidarity of the coalition that supported Ukraine. Taiwan is much more difficult to defend than Ukraine, particularly due to logistics. China is preparing for a blockade of Taiwan, not an attack. It does not need to directly land on the island and kill the Taiwanese, because doing so would lose Xi the chance to unite the nation.
  • China is drawing conclusions from Putin's mistakes. Therefore, China is instead considering the possibility of blocking access to the sea for the American Navy. It is studying Putin's Crimean annexation operation from 2014, why Putin succeeded then, and why he is losing now. China's grand strategy for 30 years has been as follows: first defend its coast, then advance to the first line of islands offshore, which includes Taiwan. 
  • Xi prefers bloodless unification. China abandoned Stalinist barracks communism and is taking a more nationalistic approach, and is accordingly trying to establish relations with the nationalists of Taiwan (KMT).

4. On Ukrainian-Chinese relations

  • There has been no political dialogue with China for 10 years. Since February 14, 2021, there has been no Ukrainian ambassador in China.
  • In fact, Zelensky's 10-point peace plan manages to intersect with China's positions, for example, that Ukraine is fighting for territorial integrity (China did not support Russia's annexation of Crimea), and that the UN should play a role in resolving the issue.
  • China itself became a member of the UN after replacing the representatives of Taiwan, creating a precedent for the expulsion of a UN Security Council permanent member. Now real reform of the UN can start with the expulsion of Russia. There are two options: either exclude Russia, or restrict the right to vote. In cases where issues affect the interests of a permanent member of the Security Council, that member must recuse itself. Ukraine must prove that Russia took its place illegally, and that Ukraine has the same entitlement to the Soviet Union's seat on the Security Council as Russia did.
Oleksiy Koval, international journalist, China specialist

This material was prepared with financial support from the International Renaissance Foundation.