Understanding China’s position on Ukraine conflict

Recent history indicates that China abhors war or violence of any kind. Since its brief war against Vietnam in 1979 and border dispute with India for the first time in more than four decades, China has not been at a full-scale war with anyone. Instead, China builds and not bombs. It is building bridges across the multipolar and multicultural world. It is not that China was not tempted or provoked into war, but it is committed to development and building friendship across borders. Indeed, it has evolved multilateralism as a central element of its foreign policy by seeking consensus through consultation and dialogue, while managing common affairs including trade through cooperation for shared benefits and win-win-results.

Accordingly, when Russia launched what it called “special military operation” in Ukraine on February 24, the Chinese government insists it had no prior knowledge of the attack. “Assertions that China knew about, acquiesced to, or tacitly supported this war are pure disinformation,” wrote Qin Gang, China’s ambassador to the United States in the Washington Post. He added, “Had China known about the imminent crisis, we would have tried our best to prevent it.”

When the UN General Assembly voted to denounce the attack on Ukraine by Russia on February 26, 2022, China was among the 35 countries that abstained. The abstention shows China seeks to be neutral and impartial on the conflict, and has been calling for a peaceful resolution, and urging nations to support efforts to reach a resolution to the conflict, while resisting pressure from the west to condemn Russia. China’s President Xi Jinping described the situation in Ukraine as “deeply worrying” and called for “maximum restraint” as the conflict escalates. He said Beijing is “pained to see the flames of war reignited in Europe”.

Spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington, Liu Pengyu, while commenting on the Ukraine crisis, said that Beijing was “committed to promoting peace talks”. Amid the conflict, the China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who spoke with Ukrainian counterpart Dymtro Kuleba, announced in March that it would provide millions of Yuan (renminbi) of humanitarian aid to Ukraine through the Chinese Red Cross “as soon as possible” while praising his country’s friendship with Russia as “rock solid”. Understanding China’s stance on the 53-day old conflict is important from an African point of view within the western countries’ predominance in the global systems.

To begin with, China has a pride with a distinct civilisation and special mission in the world. It is bound to protect its history, values, power, geopolitics and multilateralism in the world. On its abstention during the UNGA’s vote, it is in China’s best interest to promote peaceful coexistence with its Russian neighbour. China and Russia share contiguous borders of 4,209.3 kilometres long, which is the world’s sixth-longest international border. Both countries are trading partners especially in oil, gas, coal and arms. China’s friendship with Russia strengthened in February when President Vladimir Putin attended the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics on the same day that the countries declared a “no limits” strategic partnership.

So on Ukraine, as far as China is concerned, the causes of the “Ukraine situation” were “complex”, and had not happened overnight. Wang noted, using a traditional Chinese expression that “three feet of ice does not form in a single day”. According to the foreign minister, “solving complex problems requires calmness and rationality, rather than adding fuel to the fire and intensifying contradictions”. China has done and is doing “some work” to promote talks and has all along been in contact with all sides. In fact, President Xi has said the priority should be preventing the war from escalating or “spinning out of control”. He called on France and Germany to make efforts to reduce negative effects of the crisis, and expressed concern about the impact of sanctions on the stability of global finance, energy supplies, transportation and supply chains.

In the last few days, calls have been mounted on China to pressure Russia to end Ukraine war. For example, the US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen has called on China to pressure Russia to end its military offensive in Ukraine, saying Beijing risked losing its standing in the world if it does not help end the “heinous war”. She added, “China would make something positive out of its “special relationship” with Russia”. This kind of call reinforces the special position of China and what it is capable of doing in dialogue and mediation.

Also, just last weekend, a team of US lawmakers paid “a solidarity visit” to Taiwan where China was warned of paying bigger price for bullying Taiwan. One of the team, Senator Lindsey Graham, threatened of repercussion if China supports President Putin’s offensive on Ukraine. He said, “The support for Putin must come with a price”. I think the threat was uncalled for given the promise of China’s neutrality in the Ukraine-Russia crisis. Again, China has said the two – Ukraine and Taiwan – issues are not the same. China is fully aware that whatever it does on the Ukraine conflict at this moment will have worldwide implications for years to come. Already there have been food and energy crises for millions of people around the world over the Ukraine war. The concern for the risk of chemical and nuclear weapons in the conflict is also high.

China also has repeatedly criticized what it calls “illegal and unilateral Western sanctions”. The White House has expressed its “deep concerns” about providing assistance to Russia. The Chinese have gone through a lot of devastating wars, oppression, exploitation and abject poverty. So based on high moral ground, cognition and experience, China’s view of Ukraine war can be described as an apolitical stance or a pacifist. This position has encouraged China to be one of the largest contributors of UN Peacekeeping operations even in African countries.

Equally, if we look at the statements coming from the Chinese official channels since the war started, it’s not so much as pro-Russia or anti-Ukraine. It’s more resolutely critical of the US, NATO and the West. Just like the rest of us, I think the stiff resistance Ukraine showed to a superpower too surprises China. Many genuinely believe that the war was primarily caused by the NATO expansion and Russia was forced to defend its legitimate interests. Based on this thought, one could say China is genuinely sympathetic to the Russian cause. After Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, the two countries built formal diplomatic relations in 1992, and declared a strategic partnership in 2011. China has an embassy in Kyiv and a Consulate-General in Odessa. Ukraine has an embassy in Beijing and a Consulate-General in Shanghai.

In geopolitical context, China’s position on the Ukraine crisis has also been linked to its aspiration of having the self-ruled Taiwan reunified to the mainland. According to western commentators, China is keenly watching how the situations in Ukraine will play out in terms of the military goal and the lessons it offers. But China has repeatedly refuted this view, saying the scenarios in Ukraine are not the same with Taiwan. China aims to pursue peaceful reunification with Taiwan. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, asked in early March about Taiwan, pledged to “advance the peaceful growth of … relations and the reunification of China.”

But more intently, and far beyond the non-combative or non-belligerent nature of China, if there is any country that is watching the Ukraine conflict very closely, it is China. If Russia were defeated, then that would embolden the western countries to apply the same kinds of pressure on China if there is a future confrontation between it and the west. But China has a lot of economic interests to protect than to be dragged by the Ukraine-Russia conflict into a confrontation with the west at this moment. I think China is walking a fine line here for being neutral. Nevertheless, the way the war drags on will be an interesting development for China.

In summary, no matter how the Ukraine war goes, China would continue to react according to its perceived national interests. From my engagements with and observations of China, it does not like troubles. Though this does not mean China cannot fight if confronted, but only being restrained. It boasts of modernized army and hi-tech military equipment and nuclear capabilities. Nonetheless, it prefers to use soft power to resolve conflict. According to Wang on Ukraine,”China is willing to continue to play a constructive role in pushing for peace and promoting talks, and is willing to work with the international community to carry out necessary mediation when needed”.

As the most important nation of the 21st century, China’s national interests are the guiding of its strategies and policies toward the Ukraine crisis and are watching the war with keen interest, as everyone is learning from the war in Ukraine, even the US Army. Though non-belligerent, China will prefer to maintain its strategic partnership with Russia regardless of what happens. But generally, the Ukraine war has shown that China is not a warmonger going by its neutrality and in its pacification initiatives of all parties involved in this conflagration. So far, China has projected its image as a responsible power. Other responsible governments should join China in providing a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

Babatunde, PhD, is a Fellow, Peacebuilding and Evidence Practitioner at the Nigeria Institute for Peace and Conflict Resolution, Abuja.