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China’s position in the Russo-Ukrainian War

China’s reaction to the ongoing war in Ukraine appears ambiguous to say the least. Often calling for both sides to talk, the country appears uncertain as to its long-term goals. However, there may be more to this outlook once China’s traditional strategy is understood.

March 29, 2022 - Valerii Pekar - Articles and CommentaryUkraineAtWar

Russian president Vladimir Putin with Chinese President Xi Jinping. wikimedia.org

We need to talk about China.

After all, China remains the only force whose position can significantly change the geopolitical situation in Ukraine. Few people understand the country’s outlook in detail. Instead, they consider it from a Russia-centric position of “Is China supporting Russia or Ukraine?” or, at best, from a NATO-centric position of “Will China choose to be an ally of the West or its adversary?” It is impossible to comprehend China’s position using such a framework. Misunderstanding only creates inflated expectations, disappointments, insults and mistakes, the cost of which is too high.

I must note that I am not a scholar of China, so I am not claiming to know the ultimate truth. My conclusions are based on communication with experts and diplomats from several countries but reflect my own perception of their explanations.

Let us start with how China sees itself. For thousands of years, China was supposedly the only civilisation in the middle of a ​​barbaric ocean. Much like the ancient Greeks, therefore, it considered itself to be the “Central Land” under heaven. In the Chinese worldview, China has been the leading civilisation of mankind for thousands of years. It then lost its leadership for a relatively short (by historical standards) period of three hundred years but is now returning to its leading place in the world. This worldview, together with the country’s large size and economic strength, leads to the fact that China considers itself equal to western civilisation.

The three factors shaping China’s strategy

  1. China’s international policy is determined by a complex balance between its conflicting geopolitical and economic interests. From the geopolitical point of view, Beijing is interested in increasing its influence and weight in international affairs by supplanting the West. From the economic point of view, China is interested in deepening its cooperation with the West. Excessive strengthening of geopolitical influence threatens to weaken economic relations and vice versa. As a result, China is primarily interested in maintaining a balance and therefore the status quo. As you can see, this picture is more complicated than the dichotomies that the vast majority of people think of (“ally or adversary?”). It should be added that China constantly suspects the West of trying to prevent the success of its geopolitical and economic policy.
  1. The longevity of Chinese civilisation and the Chinese elite’s Confucian philosophy mean that the strategic planning horizon of Chinese politics extends much further than that of any other country on the planet (with the exception of Japan). Western politicians usually think in terms of one to two terms, i.e. no more than ten years. Only think tanks are largely able to look beyond this horizon in the West. At the same time, Chinese elites think on the scale of a century, which means that they see world events quite differently.
  1. Chinese historical tradition leads to a completely different vision of strategy than that found in the West. Although Sun Tzu and Epaminondas were contemporaries, China is considered the birthplace of the art of strategy. The difference in approaches is clearly seen in the examples of the classic strategy games of West and East: chess and weiqi (known to us under the Japanese name Go). Chess is a fierce confrontation that involves attempts to destroy enemy figures and capture the king. Go is a complex intertwining of intentions in the struggle for territory, where most moves are aimed at a long-term goal. You can go further and compare poker and mahjong. In short, China’s vision of strategy is based on influence, not confrontation.

A complex balance of diverse interests, a long planning horizon and a different approach to strategy together form a policy that is characterised by a gradual and sometimes even invisible increase in influence. Add to this traditional Chinese nationalism (the habit of considering everyone else as barbarians) and you may be able to see the world through the eyes of a Chinese strategist. See how slowly, covertly and relentlessly China is colonising Africa. This is roughly how they will colonise Russian Siberia.

Long-term planning

Thus, China has the least interest in any major war because it breaks long-term plans and balances. Moreover, war causes an increase in prices for the resources that China so desperately needs for development, so it is doubly unprofitable.

I am convinced that Putin did not inform Xi Jinping of his intentions during their meeting on February 4th, shortly before the invasion began. I can imagine the anger and contempt felt by Chinese elites over this issue. In their eyes, Putin must look like a classic barbarian who, under the influence of his own unbridled emotions, rushes into a battle in which he cannot win. If we assume for a moment that Putin warned about the invasion, he looks not only like a barbarian but also like a weakling. He promised a blitzkrieg but only found failure.

Due to this, it is impossible to consider China’s position simply in the context of the “Russo-Ukrainian War”. Chinese strategists view the world as a complex system of balances and contradictions and are planning in terms of the next century.

Sino-Russian relations still need to be considered. There is ambiguity in this sphere as well. On the one hand, according to Chinese experts, Russia has great influence in their country and its popularity among the Chinese elites is quite high. At the same time, there are historical tensions between the two countries. China’s territorial losses in favour of Russia and the associated humiliation of such changes are relatively recent. Of course, a century and a half is not a long time in China’s perspective.

China was one of the largest export markets for Russia and will now be the largest. But today, Russia needs China as a saviour from sanctions much more than China needs Russia. Beijing seeks self-sufficiency in resources and is gradually approaching this goal.

So, it would have been best for China if there was no war at all. Based on all of the aforementioned points, China’s natural strategy is to observe and not interfere. I am sure you remember Lao Tzu’s remarks about the corpse of an enemy who will eventually float past you, and Mao Zedong’s foreign policy credo about a wise monkey who does not interfere in a tigers’ fight. China usually does not interfere in world politics and never makes harsh statements.

Is it always possible to avoid interfering? When the current war started, Beijing was deeply and unpleasantly surprised by the rapid and powerful unity of the West. Whilst Europe and the US united, traditionally neutral countries dropped their neutrality. The West has also strengthened its positions in other parts of the world. Such a sharp reinforcement of the West does not correspond to China’s interests at all and leaves the country with a choice between backing western policy or facing isolation. As a result, it is not surprising that Chinese elites are currently unable to reach a consensus on a solution that would primarily aid China’s own interests.

So, if you imagine this whole picture as a game of weiqi or mahjong, you will see that everything looks quite complicated. But that is not the end of it.

Internal factors

The famous film “Don’t Look Up” shows well how foreign policy is often determined by the needs of domestic policy. When it is necessary to raise approval ratings, a decision can be made that was impossible yesterday.

China’s position in the Russo-Ukrainian War is influenced by Chinese domestic policy. The main internal event is the congress of the Chinese Communist Party, which will take place for the twentieth time at the end of 2022. There, Xi Jinping plans to be elected to a senior leadership position for life. To achieve this goal, he needs his position at the end of the year to be strong and unquestionable. Any foreign policy failure will be a personal problem for General Secretary Xi.

For Xi to succeed during the congress, China must take an active and winning position on the world stage. An alliance with an irrational and isolated Russian dictator against the whole world would be a catastrophe. Excessive weakening of the Russian Federation, let alone its disintegration, would also be disastrous. At the same time, simply letting the West grow in influence would also weaken China’s position. Interference in support of one of the warring parties is subsequently a violation of Beijing’s desired balance. China’s non-intervention at a time when intervention could avert a major war is a catastrophic loss of face. It should be remembered that Xi considers Sino-Russian relations to be his personal sphere of responsibility and achievement. Moreover, he called Putin his friend, which is not the case with other statesmen. Due to this, failure in this area will be dangerous and result in unpleasant consequences.

Do you see now how much Putin has set the Chinese leader up? Xi Jinping dreamed of a quiet year before the party congress but instead is now faced with the threat of foreign policy failure alongside a new wave of COVID-19.

But even this is not the end of it.

Core principles

To complete the picture, we need to discuss some important principles of international policy that have been continually promoted by Beijing. First, China has always supported the principle of territorial integrity due to its own problems with this issue. For almost 70 years, China has declared its boundless commitment to the principles of peaceful coexistence and now it appears to violate its own sacred principles.

Simultaneously, China supports the principle of “zones of interests” or “zones of influence”. That is why China considers fair Russia’s demand to have the right to influence Ukrainian foreign and domestic policy. Admittedly and unpleasantly for Ukraine, this view is shared by many western intellectuals.

China, according to its foreign policy doctrine, also wants to look like a “Global Responsible Leader”. This means readiness to take responsibility for resolving conflicts. It is also important to always be on the side of the winner. At this point we must say “Glory to the Armed Forces of Ukraine!”, as Ukrainian resilience and heroism have changed both the West and China’s assessment of who is the victor of the war. India’s position is also important because it is wrong for China to be passive if its regional and global rival is active.

Finally, if a new world order is being formed now, it is important for China to be one of the key players in this process. This is despite the fact that the Chinese vision of the global future clearly differs greatly from that of the West. China’s traditional strategy of waiting and restoring balances contradicts the high speed of today’s events. In merely a few weeks there have been tectonic changes in world politics that would usually take decades. Here it is important to understand whether this process will be a zero-sum game (it is worth remembering that China always suspects the West of playing in such a manner), or if it is possible to play a win-win game together.

The set of mutually exclusive conditions listed above may seem an insurmountable task. Unlike the Russian elites, however, the Chinese elites have done their homework. Their culture encourages them to untie knots carefully, not cut them.

In this situation, China will try to restore lost balances. The country does not want to spoil relations with the West but also not let the West get too strong. Simultaneously, it does not want to promote a Russian victory but also not allow for it to collapse and disintegrate. All further actions by China will look contradictory, slow and ambiguous from the point of view of the West (and Ukraine). But only in this way will China be able to emerge victorious in the long term.

Ukraine’s problem is that Sino-Ukrainian relations are not something well-defined and valuable for China. Ukraine’s policy toward China has been, to put it mildly, uncertain and vague for many years. Now we have to think what Kyiv can offer China without violating Ukraine’s constitutional geopolitical orientation to the West. Should it be participation in post-war reconstruction projects? A role as a window to Europe? Could Ukraine replace Russia with help from the countries of the Caucasus and Central Asia in China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”?

In this complex multilayered strategy game, it is important to be a player, not a playing piece or a board. As soon as Ukraine starts to think strategically, at least at the level of the first dan (the lowest rank of master skill in Eastern sports and games), it will become interesting for China. Whilst an old, experienced master is always looking for young promising players, they are not at all interested in those who are not able to learn to play at a decent level.

Valerii Pekar is a co-founder of the Nova Kraina Civic Platform, a lecturer at the Kyiv-Mohyla Business School and a former member of the National Reform Council.

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