China’s Position on Ukraine War Tells a Tale

In the event of February 24 marking a year to the Russia-Ukraine War, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), unlike any other country, released a position paper calling for the “Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis” suggesting that “dialogue and negotiation are the only viable solution to the Ukraine crisis”. China’s position paper on the surface appears quite elaborative and expansive. For instance, in vouching to play a constructive role, Beijing’s position on the war remains: “Conflict and war benefit no one. All parties must stay rational and exercise restraint, avoid fanning the flames and aggravating tensions and prevent the crisis from deteriorating further or even spiraling out of control. All parties should support Russia and Ukraine in working in the same direction and resuming direct dialogue as quickly as possible, so as to gradually deescalate the situation and ultimately reach a comprehensive ceasefire”. 

The PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs 12-point document emphasizes on several critical facets. These facets are not necessarily different from the position China has maintained in many international conflicts barring conflicts where it is a party in itself. Still, Beijing has touched upon some significant issues that are critical under the current conditions. Some of these issues are: respecting the sovereignty of all countries, abandoning the Cold War mentality, ceasing hostilities, resuming peace talks, resolving the humanitarian crisis, protecting civilians and prisoners of war, keeping nuclear power plants safe, reducing strategic risks, facilitating grain exports, stopping unilateral sanctions, keeping industrial and supply chains stable, and promoting post-conflict reconstruction. Here, the query that demands attention is: What calls for China’s exceptional behavior in expounding a 12-point position on the Russia-Ukraine War?

Explaining Neutrality

What is obvious is that China’s ‘neutrality’ has put significant roadblocks in its quest to be perceived as a ‘responsible actor’ in the international arena. Against the growing concerns and skepticism on China’s neutrality over the War, the ’12-point paper’ is Beijing’s one of many attempts to establish itself as a responsible player on the global stage. To explain, at the start of the Russia-Ukraine War, on February 26, 2022, China expounded a five-point position on the Ukraine crisis wherein Wang Yi stated that the PRC views the conflict as an outcome of a “complex historical context” and that Russia has “legitimate security concerns”.

Furthermore, Beijing had also denounced the U.S. as the main culprit in the Russia- Ukraine war, whose actions of “pouring oil on the flame” are “irresponsible and immoral” as well as backed Moscow’s accusations that the U.S. has operated bioweapons facilities in Ukraine. More important, just a few days prior to the crisis in Ukraine, Beijing, and Russia jointly affirmed that their friendship has “no limits” and that “there are no “forbidden” areas of cooperation”. All this has made the international community wary of China’s position on the Ukraine crisis.

The release of the official document by China on the eve of February 24 also needs to be read in the context of two key circumstances. First, an outcome in the immediate aftermath of U.S. President Joe Biden’s ‘unannounced/surprise’ first visit to Kyiv on February 20, days before the first anniversary to the War. In the joint statement with President Zelenskyy of Ukraine, Biden categorically remarked: “one year later, Kyiv stands and Ukraine stands. Democracy stands,” and that “Putin’s war of conquest is failing”. Furthermore, in solidifying America’s enduring support for Ukraine, Biden announced an additional military aid of $450 million to Ukraine – Washington’s 32nd such security package that includes artillery ammunition for HIMARS and Howitzers, more Javelins, anti-armor systems, and air surveillance radars. Also, provided an additional $10 million as emergency assistance to keep Ukraine’s energy infrastructure up and running in the face of Russia’s relentless missile and drone attacks. So far, the U.S. is committed to provide Ukraine continuous support with tanks, armored vehicles, artillery systems along with ammunitions. More importantly, providing advanced lunch rocket systems, anti-ship and air defense systems to further strengthen military cooperation is planned with Ukraine.

Second, China’s top diplomat Wang Yi’s eight-day international tour to Europe included visits to France, Italy, and Hungary, as well as Germany for the Munich Security Conference, with a final stop in Russia. On February 18, in his keynote speech at the conference on “Making the World a Safer Place”, Wang stated: “For a safer world, the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries must be respected, disputes should be peacefully resolved through dialogue and consultation”. Besides, Wang also announced that the Chinese side will put forth “China’s position on the political settlement of the Ukraine crisis”.  This was followed by his visit to Moscow on February 21 – a day after Biden’s visit to Kyiv. Wang’s visit also marked the very first visit by a Chinese top official to Moscow since the War began in 2022.

As per China’s Foreign Ministry’s readout from Wang’s meeting with Nikolai Patrushev, head of Russia’s Security Council, both sides opposed the “introduction of the Cold War mentality, bloc confrontation and ideological confrontation”. While meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on February 22, Wang noted that “no matter how the international situation changes, China is willing to maintain a good development momentum of a new type of major-country relations with Russia” – reiterating the “no limits” aspect in the ties. Besides, Wang’s Moscow visit also coincided with Putin’s suspension of Russia’s participation in the New START, the last remaining nuclear weapons treaty between Moscow and Washington.

Friends and Foes

While meeting Wang Yi, Putin stated, as reported by the Russian News Agency TASS: “Sino-Russian relations are evolving just as we planned in prior years. Everything is progressing and developing. We are reaching new heights”. Invariably, rather than brokering peace, there is a growing suspicion over China providing Russia with “lethal support”: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in his recent remarks stated that Chinese firms were already providing “non-lethal support” to Russia and new information suggested Beijing could provide “lethal support”. However, Beijing denied the accusations by stating that “[w]e (the PRC) do not accept the U.S.’s finger-pointing or even coercion targeting China-Russia relations”. 

Given the growing spat between Beijing and Washington, China’s position paper directly or indirectly hits at U.S. and its allies. For instance, in raising opposition to “Cold War mentality”, the paper categorically suggests: “The security of a region should not be achieved by strengthening or expanding military blocs. The legitimate security interests and concerns of all countries must be taken seriously and addressed properly. […] All parties should oppose the pursuit of one’s own security at the cost of others’ security, prevent bloc confrontation, and work together for peace and stability on the Eurasian Continent”. It further notes that, “[r]elevant countries (U.S. and its allies) should stop abusing unilateral sanctions and ‘long-arm jurisdiction’ against other countries”. Adding to the blame-game, China accuses the U.S. of “fuelling the fire” in the Ukraine conflict. Making an obvious reference to the U.S., China’s foreign minister Qin Gang recently remarked: “Since the outbreak of the crisis, China has consistently been objective and impartial. […] We urge certain countries to immediately stop fuelling the fire, stop shifting the blame on China and stop hyping up ‘Ukraine today, Taiwan tomorrow’”.

These statements highlight the ingenuity in Chinese approach. Contrary to how China has behaved in recent years on regional hotspots such as China-India boundary dispute, South China Sea and East China Sea dispute, China’s official position on this war appears to be more sober. What is however important to note that the Russia-Ukraine War is increasingly becoming a challenge for China. How Beijing will balance its position against the growing skepticism will only get trickier. Its neutrality seems to be backfiring, acting as a litmus test for China’s ‘responsible’ actor image.