China’s Dilemma in the Russia-Ukraine War

China’s Dilemma in the Russia-Ukraine War

Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on 24 February has triggered global condemnation and the severest of sanctions imposed by the United States and its European allies. The war is dragging on past its three-month mark, with mounting destruction, inflicting suffering on millions of innocent Ukrainians, without a clear sign of how it will end. While the situation is still unfolding, the world is trying to find solutions to the conflict. In particular, the international community is paying great attention to China’s stance and approach to the Russia-Ukraine war.

China’s stance and response

Beijing’s official stance on the Russia-Ukraine war has, to some extent, been consistent in its calling for dialogue and negotiation between Kyiv and Moscow, emphasizing its interest in promoting a peaceful solution, and respecting sovereignty and territorial integrity. It indicates its willingness to act as a ‘neutral’ player but does not want to take sides. Meanwhile, Beijing avoids using the term ‘war’ or ‘invasion’ in its statements. Instead, it uses ‘Ukraine crisis’, ‘Russia-Ukraine conflict’ or ‘Russia’s special military operation against Ukraine’ when describing the war. In addition, it has also opposed the use of sanctions against Russia and publicly blamed NATO and the United States for neglecting Russia’s legitimate security concerns. This justification for Russia’s invasion and its reluctance in endorsing sanctions against Russia have been regarded widely by the West as the same as taking a side.

In its domestic rhetoric, China’s state media clearly takes a stand in support of Russia. The rationalization of Russia’s invasion is NATO’s eastward enlargement and the United States as the driving force behind the crisis.  Alternative voices that suggest that either Russia is at fault or that China should abandon its partner are censored and seen as ‘pro-West.’

In the business sector, there is a wider mix of approaches. While the majority of Chinese companies in Russia maintain business-as-usual, some of the state-owned enterprises (SOEs) have either suspended operations or are suspending new contracts on the ground. The main consideration behind this decision is probably due to the concern of secondary sanctions that may affect their business elsewhere. One recent position change is from DJI, a Chinese drone company. It has decided to temporarily suspend all its business in Russia and Ukraine “in light of current hostilities” and due to the concerns that their products have been used for military purposes by the Russian army.

China’s dilemma

By taking the middle ground China hopes it will avoid offending either side. How did China end up in this dilemma? The answer to this question largely relates to how China perceives the Russia-Ukraine war.

Firstly, China has a different understanding of the nature of the war. It views the United States and NATO as the cause, believing that Russia launched the war to ensure its legitimate security interests.

Secondly, China sees the implications of the war beyond the battlefield itself. Any action perceived to be siding with the West will lose China its most important strategic partner, a costly prospect when the long-term competition is between China and the United States. Russia, as a neighboring country of China, is a crucial relationship that Beijing needs to maintain and one that provides support for China in its future competition with the United States.

Lastly, while Beijing maintains the façade of siding with Moscow, more in the political and diplomatic sense, it is uncomfortable with Russia’s blatant invasion of a sovereign country. In addition, any substantive support to Russia, either perceived or real, risks itself becoming the target of secondary sanctions. Beijing can ill afford the potentially significant economic losses it will incur by providing substantive support to Russia, given China’s extensive economic interdependence with the United States and the European Union.

Potential implication for the Korean Peninsula

The Russia-Ukraine war could be used by North Korea to justify its nuclear weapons development. By observing how the war progresses between Russia and Ukraine, North Korea may even consider advancing its missile defense system and strengthening its conventional forces, as well as further developing its cyber capability.

Moreover, after seeing the UN’s lack of effectiveness in stopping Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, North Korea may become dismissive about the role of the UN Security Council. North Korea may believe that as long as it remains a friend of a UN permanent member, it can be even more provocative in its behavior. It is already well underway to carry out more than twenty tests in the first half of this year alone.

More broadly, the war has further strengthened emerging ‘Cold War blocs’ in the region between China, Russia and North Korea on one side, and the United States, South Korea, and Japan on the other. This confrontation between the two blocs will worsen inter-Korean relations. Meanwhile, although the stability of the Korean Peninsula will remain the common interests of all relevant parties, there might be less willingness by key stakeholders in working together, with each pursuing different or even opposing approaches to addressing North Korea’s nuclear issues. This polarisation was already apparent, with China and Russia pushing for the partial lifting of sanctions on North Korea while the United States insisted on strengthening them.

A trilateral cooperation is, to some extent, already formed between China, Russia, and North Korea. For the United States, South Korea, and Japan, there is still some work to be done before they can form a trilateral alliance. Both Japanese and South Korean domestic politics will have to go through a radical transformation for such a change to take place. There are hopeful signs that under the new Yoon Suk-yeol government, Seoul and Tokyo could take the first steps to bury the hatchet between them. The war in Ukraine will have negative implications for the de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Indeed, an uncertain security environment and great-power rivalry may result in nuclear proliferation, with both Seoul and Tokyo either looking for firmer US commitments to extended deterrence or seeking nuclear capabilities of their own.

About the Authors

Fei Su is a researcher at Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

Jingdong Yuan is Associate Senior Fellow at Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SIPRI, or that of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network or any of its members.

Image: Chinese and Russian vehicles during the joint military exercise Vostok in 2018. Wikimedia Commons.

Related Articles