Feel free to talk to China about Ukraine, but don't expect miracles

Opinion piece (Encompass)
15 December 2022

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and President of the European Council Charles Michel have both taken the long flight to Beijing to meet Xi Jinping recently. Getting China’s help in ending Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine has been near the top of both their agendas. Both men asked Xi to use his influence with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Next in line will be France’s President Emmanuel Macron: after meeting Xi in Bali last month, he announced that he would visit China early in 2023, and that he was “convinced that China can play a more important mediation role”. But how likely is it that Xi will respond to these European appeals?

Xi and Putin declared in a joint statement in February 2022, just three weeks before Russia’s attack on Ukraine, that “friendship between the two states has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation”. Despite these warm words, China has generally tried to appear neutral in the conflict. It is in the West’s interest that China should stay on the sidelines of Putin’s war. But European leaders should not have exaggerated hopes of getting Beijing to be more helpful than that. In dealing with Russia, Xi has to balance a number of factors – and the Western view of the Kremlin is far from the most important.  

First, there is Xi’s personal relationship with Putin, built up over a decade. In two highly personalised systems, the relationship between the two leaders has a big impact on relations between their states. In 2013, Xi’s first foreign trip as president was to Moscow, where he told Putin “You and I are good friends”. Since then, probably no foreign leader has met or spoken to Putin as often as Xi. The war seems to have caused some cooling in relations, however. When Putin and Xi met in Samarkand in September 2022, Putin’s televised remarks suggested that he and Xi did not see eye-to-eye on Ukraine: he talked of “the balanced position of our Chinese friends when it comes to the Ukraine crisis” and commented: “We understand your questions and your concern about this”.

Second, there is China’s credibility on the international stage. Few countries put more emphasis on the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs. Beijing has not endorsed Putin’s illegal annexation of Ukrainian territory. But in practice in its votes at the UN and in its public statements China has focused more on highlighting Russia’s security concerns (and even amplifying Russian disinformation about Nazis in Ukraine) than protecting Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Though China seems uncomfortable with repeated  hints from the Russian leadership that the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine is not impossible, it is unclear whether China would come off the diplomatic fence even in that event. 

Third, there are China’s economic interests. While China is the main trading partner of Russia (as it is of Ukraine), its combined trade with the EU and US in 2021 was almost 12 times its trade with Russia. Fear of retaliatory Western sanctions may explain why, despite its rhetorical support for Moscow, Beijing does not seem to have supplied Russia with military equipment or other sensitive items during the conflict. Still, after a dip in the first four months of the war, Chinese exports to Russia rose by almost 19 per cent year-on-year in the first ten months of 2022. Meanwhile, China’s imports from Russia rose by 48 per cent year-on-year over the same period. Increased Chinese purchases of (heavily discounted) Russian oil account for most of the change. China is happy to be the beneficiary of such discounts; Russia gets some revenue, albeit at less than the full market price; while Europeans, forced to buy oil at higher prices from elsewhere, pay an economic penalty. One notable feature of the trade is the decreased use of the dollar and increased use of the Chinese yuan for payments, insulating the trading partners from US sanctions.

Finally, there are China’s geostrategic interests in the course and outcome of the conflict. When Putin launched his invasion, four months after the ignominious retreat of the US and its allies from Afghanistan, the Chinese leadership probably expected that Russia would achieve a quick victory that would further undermine Western pretensions to global leadership. China would then be in a stronger position to reshape the global order for its own benefit. Instead, however, the West has maintained a united front and has helped Ukraine to push Russia back in some areas.

In one way, China might now welcome a prolonged and inconclusive conflict in Europe. The effort to keep Ukraine supplied and to reassure NATO allies by reinforcing the US presence in Europe might complicate US plans to focus more of its military effort on the Indo-Pacific region.

At the same time, when Washington and Brussels are looking at China more as a hostile power than a potential friend, it is not in China’s geostrategic interest to help the West weaken Russia – a like-minded country and a strategic partner. Were there to be a real threat to Russia’s internal stability, China would probably do what it could to shore up Putin’s regime. A Russia in chaos or (still worse from China’s perspective) one in which Putin was replaced by a more pro-Western figure would force China once again to guard its long border with Russia.

Overall, China may not like everything that Russia is doing, but at least Moscow is not actively working against Beijing, and shares much of its world view. The best that the West can hope to achieve is to keep China more or less neutral, deter it from actively undermining Western sanctions (particularly those preventing technology transfer to Russia) and perhaps get it to rein in some of its disinformation activities. European leaders should have realistic expectations for their Beijing meetings: China will pursue its own interests in its relations with Russia, and they are not the same as the West’s.

Ian Bond is director of foreign policy at the Centre for European Reform.