On the phone call between China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Ukrainian counterpart Dmyro Kuleba on March 1, Wang expressed his profound regrets on the current conflict and paid particular attention to the civilian casualties. He also stated that China would be willing to facilitate negotiations between both sides for a ceasefire. At the United Nations General Assembly Emergency Special Session one day before, Chinese Ambassador to the U.N. Zhang Jun suggested that the rapidly unfolding situation in Ukraine was something China “does not wish to see and which is not in the interest of any party.”
The two statements could be seen as early signs of China taking a less ambiguous position on the ongoing crisis, which came as a shock for Beijing, according to some observers. Yet, both events follow China’s abstention from the U.N. Security Council Resolution 2623 condemning Russia’s military actions.
Is China slowly shifting attitudes toward the crisis? Will its position become less and less enigmatic as the war develops? Although this remains to be seen, there are several reasons for China to hold back from embracing the Kremlin’s aggression within a sovereign Ukraine, including functional calculations, diplomatic and military bond with Kyiv, strategic considerations, and normative reflection.
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First, while Russia is Ukraine’s third largest trading partner, China has become the its largest trading partner since 2020, with Ukraine “export[ing] $4.9 billion worth of goods and import[ing] $5.5 billion worth of goods from China.” On the other hand, as per China’s Foreign Ministry, Ukraine is China’s third largest trading partner in Eurasia, behind only Russia and Kazakhstan. Furthermore, Ukraine signed the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) cooperation agreement with China back in 2020, and has served as a critical node in Beijing’s flagship initiative.
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According to statistics provided by China’s Ministry of Commerce, as of 2021 Beijing has signed new engineering contracts with Kyiv worth over $2 billion for two years in a row, and in July 2021 both sides agreed to deepen further infrastructure cooperation by signing yet another intergovernmental agreement in promoting the building of railways, roads, and bridges. The signature of this agreement was reported as “a surprise” by the South China Morning Post, as it came amid the geopolitical tension between Kyiv and Moscow; the SCMP article was reposted by many Chinese online media outlets.
For China, Ukraine is an essential gateway and an important transit hub to the EU. Some commentators suggested that Beijing looked favorably upon Kyiv’s 2017 trade agreement with the EU for that reason. This was exemplified by remarks by Ambassador Zhang during the U.N. General Assembly Emergency Special Session on February 28, when he said that “Ukraine should serve as a bridge of communication between East and West instead of as a frontline for geopolitical rivalries.”
Moreover, Ukraine is a major crops and feeds exporter to China; the main foodstuffs exports include corn, soybeans, whole grain, rapeseed, beets, and sunflower seeds. While it is unclear how China’s business groups, state-owned enterprises, or line ministries are interpreting the crisis, it would not be surprising if the Kremlin’s aggression toward Ukraine created huge uncertainty for the prospect of Chinese trade and investments with the country, making China’s business interests reluctant to have the government side with Moscow from a functional perspective.
Another functional calculation is that China does not wish to be affected by the repercussions of Western sanctions imposed on Russia, which are gradually coming to the fore. While some analysts have suggested that the exclusion of Russia from the SWIFT system might in turn bring the two parties closer to each other, so far, Beijing has cautiously sought not to aid Moscow in evading the sanctions. Some Chinese banks have halted issuing letters of credit for the acquisition of Russian commodities. Last but not least, we can glean from Beijing’s reaction toward the earlier Venezuelan crisis that actors in China may actually not be interested in betting on a failing economy. The case of Venezuela, China halted the provision of fresh money to Maduro’s regime.
Second, the diplomatic and military bond between China and Ukraine is not as weak as some in China would assume. This year marks the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Beijing and Kyiv, and China was among the first countries to recognize Ukraine’s independence and sovereignty. China’s Ambassador to Ukraine Fan Xianrong in a signed article recalled “Ukrainian’s heroic assistance to China during the era of world anti-fascism war” and “Ukrainian experts’ aid with China’s construction on the outset of the PRC.” As the educational hub of the USSR, Ukraine helped train lots of Chinese experts in the industry, agriculture, sanitation, and science sectors in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odessa, and Dnipro.
In terms of military cooperation, China has relied on Ukrainian specialists in modernizing the aircraft carrier Varyag, which was purchased by a Hong Kong businessman from Ukraine. Later, the vessel was renamed Liaoning, becoming China’s first aircraft carrier and a source of pride for the country. According to a report released by the New Europe Center in 2020, Ukraine is one of China’s arms suppliers, even against the backdrop of increasingly tense China-U.S. relations. The report details that the supplies include turbofan engines, diesel engines, and gas turbines. Moreover, with the help of Ukrainian engineers, Beijing managed to conduct reverse engineering on the Russian Su-27 fighter and turned it into its own J-11 fighter. In fact, following the “dual introduction policy” – a bid to introduce both technology and talents from the CIS countries after the collapse of the USSR – in 2006 alone China was able to invite Ukrainian scientists to visit China more than 2,000 times, because Ukraine was the focus of this project. Having Ukraine as an alternative military partner alleviates China’s dependence on Russia – which, it must be emphasized, is not a formal ally to China.
Diplomatically, China’s then-President Hu Jintao and his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yanukovych elevated the bilateral relationship to the strategic partnership level in 2011. In the agreement, both sides expressed that “they would support each other on the matters related to national sovereignty, unity and territorial integrity.” Hence, the Sino-Ukraine diplomatic and military bond should not be neglected when assessing Beijing’s reluctance to side with Moscow in the current crisis.
Third, the Kremlin’s aggression against Ukraine has ignited an unprecedented unity in the transatlantic alliance, something that Beijing does not wish to see. Strategically speaking, analysts pointed out that, in contrast to Russia, China seeks to have “a stable – but pliant and fragmented – EU and large and integrated European single market that underpins it.” China is also interested in a weak transatlantic alliance, except for issues like counterterrorism. The swift response and aligned position across transatlantic partners against the Kremlin’s unprovoked invasion are not in Beijing’s geostrategic interests. Meanwhile, Beijing would have to think twice if it wanted to keep its relationship with Russia, which is facing severe sanctions and is likely to degenerate into a global pariah. Sticking close to Moscow will inevitably impact China’s relationship with the EU and individual European countries and could hasten transatlantic convergence toward Beijing.
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Fourth, China is caught in a tough situation where Kremlin’s aggression is at odds with Beijing’s long-standing normative adherence to national sovereignty and the Five Principles of Coexistence, not to mention that China has stressed time and again its respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty. Moscow’s breach of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine was premised upon the pretext of a peacekeeping function aimed to protect its citizens allegedly suffering from “genocide” conducted by Kyiv. Amid the Western accusations against Beijing’s own internal human rights record, with some countries invoking the word of “genocide” in Xinjiang, acquiescing to Moscow’s aggression based on unproven allegation of genocide in Ukraine might ultimately be seen as a double standard, and might weaken China’s sovereigntist discourse should foreign actors seek to meddle in its domestic affairs related to human rights violations.
On top of that, a deeper tension that China faces here is how to reconcile its strict adherence to sovereignty on the one hand and its echoing of Russia’s interpretation of the indivisible security doctrine enshrined in the 1990 Charter of Paris on the other. Even on March 1, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson still emphasized at a press conference that “a country’s security cannot be at the expense of that of the others” and that “Russia’s legitimate demands should be considered and duly settled after five rounds of NATO expansion.” The ensuing question is: Does NATO’s defiance of Moscow’s interpretation of indivisible security justify the latter’s current unprovoked intrusion into Ukraine’s territory? If China truly respects Ukraine’s sovereignty, would it not also be the case that it ought to respect a sovereign country’s choice to participate in any international arrangement it wishes?
As long as China is reflecting upon the normative tension between the country’s long-standing international promises and the indivisible security doctrine, it is likely that it will not embrace the Kremlin during the ongoing crisis.