Chinese President Xi Jinping with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow in 2019. Photo: AFP / Alexander Zemlianichenko

As the Ukraine crisis unfolds and Russian President Putin orders Russian troops into the two breakaway territories of Donetsk and Luhansk—after recognizing them as independent—and beyond, all attention is focused on the reaction of the international community to this Russian aggression. Sanctions are expected from the West, some of which the US and Europe have already swiftly announced.

China was the largest supporter of Russia after the 2014 Crimea annexation crisis, but now its position on Russia’s actions is both crucial and more complex, with many in the Chinese policy community surprised Putin was following through on his threats.

Given Beijing’s historical record and strategic calculations, clear positions and decisive actions by China are unlikely. However, there are means to influence China’s calculus and its tactical preference in relation to Russia.

Consistency and change

In comparison to China’s reaction at this point during the Crimea crisis, a consistent pattern is evident. As a theme, China has called for all parties to exercise restraint, prevent escalation, and resolve differences through negotiation.

In the cases of both Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, Beijing has emphasized the complex historical factors and realties, a move that appears to place the responsibilities on both sides. If Crimea serves as a precedent, China will remain silent on the issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity, which in reality translates into a tacit recognition of the altered status quo without publicly stating so.

There are several nuanced differences in China’s position this time around, however. The first is the Foreign Ministry’s statement that all countries’ reasonable security concerns deserve to be respected. In line with China’s balancing act, such a statement applies to Ukraine’s security concern with a Russian invasion, as well as Russian security concerns over the expansion of NATO.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi had publicly stated that all countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity should be protected—Ukraine included. That is widely regarded as the most clearcut position China has delivered on a Russian invasion during this crisis.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Photo: Agencies

However, Wang’s statement should be assessed together with the qualifier that he added: that the result in Ukraine today is the consequence of the failure to implement the Minsk II Agreement. But that failure itself is the “Minsk Conundrum,” for which China views both parties as responsible.

Last but not least, China claims that it will decide its position according to the merits of the matter itself, a clear move to refute speculations that China will side with Russia based on the joint statement Putin and Xi issued earlier this month in Beijing about Sino-Russia relations having “no limit.”

The Chinese calculus

The most direct reaction on the morning of February 22 in the Chinese policy community was a sense of shock. Having subscribed to the theory that Putin was only posturing and that US intelligence was inaccurate as in the case of invading Iraq, the Chinese were not anticipating a real invasion by Russia.

For the Chinese, Putin’s brinksmanship had achieved his goals of forcing the US and Europe back to the negotiation table, driving a wedge between NATO allies, inflating energy prices, and deterring NATO expansion, and, therefore, there was no need to follow through at the risk of severe sanctions.

The inclination to dismiss the possibility of a Russian invasion not only suggests China’s preference, but also illustrates Beijing’s self-perceived detachment from the European theater.

As Beijing does not feel it should be either responsible or affected by Russia’s actions in its east, the Chinese were observing the situation in Ukraine with interest but from afar. The joint statement with Russia is another example of how China failed to anticipate Putin’s actions.

Had Beijing expected Putin to invade Ukraine two weeks after, it would have been more careful about its close alignment and commitment that tie Beijing to Putin’s chariot.

Although plenty of Chinese pundits feel played by Russia, their bitterness is diluted by perceived strategic benefits. At the minimum, China sees the Ukraine crisis as a useful distraction that will draw the US away from the Indo-Pacific and back to Europe and the Atlantic, alleviating the strategic pressure on China as the biggest national security threat to the US. 

In this sense, China and Russia do not need to coordinate joint actions against the US, but their individual actions themselves could act as force multipliers —“divide and conquer.”

Furthermore, between Ukraine and Taiwan, there is no comparison, but there are implications. Interestingly, the Chinese resent the comparison because it implies Taiwan is a sovereign nation and has territorial integrity.

Taiwanese soldiers in a drill in a file photo: Image: Facebook / Agencies

But how the US deals with the Ukraine crisis will serve as a reference for Beijing of the US’s willingness and resolve for military intervention, despite important differences such as the Taiwan Relations Act.

Washington might assert there are differences between partners and allies, between China and Russia, and between Europe and the Indo-Pacific. However, the key is how China will perceive it and draw its conclusions. The strategic judgment about the value of Russia in China’s competition with the US is perhaps the most important anchor of China’s reaction to the Ukraine crisis.

Instead of condemning Russia, China will pursue a middle-ground approach that attributes the Russian aggression to NATO expansion and “complex historical factors.” The result of that aggression will soon become a fait accompli. And most importantly, the cost China has to carry for the Russian adventurism will be seen by itself as minimal and justified for the mutual support the alignment offers.

Changing China’s stance

The US may not be able to force China to change its position and oppose Russia publicly and decisively. After all, the Chinese do not see an incentive in cooperating with the US to punish Russia as US strategy toward China appears unmalleable, providing little reward if China were to aid the US on Ukraine.

If there is no reward, the cost of China’s choice is what’s left to alter its perceived payoff. While Beijing wants to exploit the strategic benefits of the Russian activities, it will recalculate if the cost is so high that it becomes untenable.

Some Chinese have had the wrong impression and illusions that there are no more effective economic sanctions the US can apply after the past few years of the trade war. This view needs to be corrected. As Russia’s largest trading partner, China has significant trade and financial ties with Russia that will be vulnerable to US sanctions.

China will pay a certain price for sanctions imposed on Russua. Photo: AFP / Demyanchuk / Sputnik

This is particularly true given the central role state-owned actors play in bilateral trade relations, such as the Chinese oil companies in the energy trade.

The bottom line is this: China wants to draw alignment and support from Russia in the era of strategic competition with the US, but when the practical costs of such alignment outweigh its benefits, Beijing will have to reconsider.

The China-Russia alignment begins and ends with their joint anti-US agenda. Beyond that, they have different endgames, visions and approaches to the world. Therefore, manipulation of the payoff of their alignment will be the most effective.

Yun Sun is senior fellow and co-director of China and East Asia at the Stimson Center think tank. This commentary first ran at the Stimson Center website and has been republished with permission. Read the original here.