The news came as a surprise to many in Beijing. Barely 24 hours ago, Chinese pundits predicted that a war in Ukraine was not inevitable. In New York, as Russia geared up for a full-on assault on its neighbour, China’s UN envoy, Zhang Jun, urged in a security council meeting that “the door to a peaceful solution to the Ukraine issue is not fully shut, nor should it be shut”.
But when people in Kyiv woke up to sound of bombs in what the Nato chief called a “deliberate, cold-blooded” invasion, the door had clearly been closed. China’s state media, however, insisted it was a “special military action” by Russia. Quoting Vladimir Putin, China’s central television tweeted: “Russia was left with no other choice.”
Chinese netizens were fascinated by Russia’s move. Three weeks ago, Putin was the guest of honour at the Beijing Winter Olympics. On 4 February, he and Xi Jinping pledged that there would be “no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation” in their bilateral relationship. On Thursday, millions took to the social media site Weibo to discuss it. So much so, a new phrase was coined: Wu Xin Gong Zuo（乌心工作）to describe those who were so concerned with the situation in Ukraine they could not focus on work.
The reality on the ground contrasted with the official Chinese media narrative, yet it also offered a glimpse into the tightrope Beijing is walking. On Thursday, as she refused to use the word “invasion” to describe Russia’s action, the foreign ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, also indicated that China would not provide arms to Russia. “I believe that as a strong country, Russia doesn’t need China or other countries to provide weapons to it,” she said.
In his call with Putin on Friday, Xi reiterated that China “respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations” and called for negotiations to resolve the issue. According to the Kremlin, Xi told Putin that he “respects” Russia’s actions. Putin, according to a Chinese readout, said he was “willing to conduct high-level talks with Ukraine”.
Bonny Lin, the director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC, said “Besides China’s effort to balance its various goals, all indications point to the fact that China prioritises its relationship with Russia at the moment,”adding that Moscow’s action also posed a problem for Beijing.
In public, Beijing advocates the position that sovereignty is sacrosanct. This is a discourse it often deploys when it talks about Taiwan, which it regards as a breakaway province.
On the other hand, the Ukraine crisis offers Beijing the opportunity to express grievances against its common adversaries with Russia: the US and Nato. So far, the latter appears to be weighing heavier in Beijing’s messaging.
This explains why Hua on Thursday invoked the memories of a diplomatic incident from more than 20 years ago. On 7 May 1999, Nato missiles struck the Chinese embassy in Belgrade and set it ablaze in a predawn strike, killing three Chinese nationals. The US claimed it was a “mistake” caused by an out-of-date map, but China was never convinced.
“Chinese elites operate in a way that political gains can be prioritised over economic gains,” according to Zeno Leoni, a defence expert at King’s College London. “Right now China’s political goal is to weaken the US-led liberal order. This means that it could accept some economic disruption and continue to publicly support Russia – a marriage of convenience – for the sake of a political objective.”
The Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying reacts during a press conference on Thursday in Beijing. Photograph: Liu Zheng/AP
Lin noted the further escalation of events was likely to worsen China’s relationship with the US and the EU and push countries such as Japan and Australia further away from China. “In the near term, China will be impacted by secondary sanctions and these costs for China will likely increase as the situation in Ukraine deteriorates.”
In unveiling the latest round of sanctions on Thursday, Joe Biden took a swipe at Beijing, saying any country that backed Russia’s onslaught in Ukraine would be “stained by association”. “Putin will be a pariah on the international stage,” he declared.
For now, Beijing’s mixed tactics appear to have already exposed the limit of its initial approach. On Thursday, China announced it was fully open to Russian wheat imports. But 24 hours later, reports showed that at least two of China’s biggest state-owned banks were restricting financing for purchases of Russian commodities.
Leoni said that if military tensions were to escalate across Europe – where China has major economic interests – Beijing’s attitude might still change. “We have seen recently how both Nato’s and Russia’s naval assets have been positioning or involved in trainings in the Mediterranean Sea: Beijing might change its calculus about Russia should military hostilities extend, even mildly, to this region where the bulk of China’s trade with Europe travels through.”
Western leaders are alarmed by Beijing’s response as they see the implications for the US-led postwar world order being fundamentally reshaped as a result of Russia’s action. “What we need to make sure in our response today is that we don’t just have a tactical response … But we have a long-term response to the threat to the democratic order,” Jeremy Hunt, a former British foreign secretary, told BBC Radio 4.
“There are now two very big powers, Russia and China, that are absolutely committed to upending that order. And that is why we have to think long and hard and smart about what to do next.”
Beijing is aware of the diplomatic fallout such a response would cause. But a government researcher, who wished to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the matter, quipped: “Even if China joined the west in sanctioning Russia or criticising Russia, will the US-China relations improve?”
“We don’t want to face such a difficult choice, either,” he added, admitting Beijing’s dilemma but insisting its policy had to be pragmatic. “After all, China and Russia share a 4,000km-long border. In the long run, China has to be on good terms with Russia.”
To realist Chinese foreign policy thinkers, geography and history continue to be relevant in their reasoning of the new world order. The deadly Soviet-China border conflict in 1969 still casts a shadow for Beijing particularly as Biden frames America’s China challenge as “democracy v autocracy”.
“We are in the middle of massive changes [in geopolitics] and if you look around, many countries have been adventurous in recent years. For China, it is an opportunity as well as a challenge,” the Beijing- based government researcher said. “Adding the pandemic factor, it’s going to be very chaotic in the years to come.”