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Why China Weighs in on Ukraine

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Andreas Ortega

When Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping were cuddling up to each other during the Olympics, they affirmed their joint opposition to NATO’s reach.

They are obviously opposed to democratic, non-totalitarian nations expressing their solidarity to one another by belonging to the alliance.

It is well-known why Putin is so focused on the issue.  But why did Xi do so?  Just to play along with his Russian fellow autocrat?

Complex motives

China, has two main goals on the crisis between Russia and Ukraine. The first is to gauge the U.S. reaction to a possible crisis between Beijing and Taiwan.  The second is to prevent NATO as such from meddling in the Indo-Pacific.

This is one of the main issues that needs to be settled between now and the NATO summit, which is due to be held in Madrid this June.

China aligned itself with Russia not just at the talks between the Russian and Chinese Presidents, but also at the recent UN Security Council meeting for a simple reason: Both Russia and China share a desire for a new international order with a less powerful United States.

However, China does not back Putin, or his viewpoint, 100%. After all, it is keen on defending the territorial integrity of states, given that it is also affected by this issue. And, of course, it seeks to safeguard its own economic interests.

Uneasy allies

The meeting on the eve of the inauguration of the Olympic Games was the first meeting between the Chinese President and a foreign leader since the start of the pandemic.

The joint communiqué unapologetically states that they “share the understanding that democracy is a universal human value, rather than a privilege of a limited number of states”.

Touting so-called democracy

The Chinese regime has been arguing for some time that what it calls its “democracy” works.

It is part of the ideological campaign waged against certain liberal democracies that allege internal problems.

A new focus for NATO?

China, which wants to have its way all cross Asia, is concerned about NATO and the United States.

At the same time, there is a shift of global power towards Asia, the Western Alliance wants to turn its focus not only towards China but also towards the Indo-Pacific region as a whole in order both to counterbalance and participate in it. This is a strategic goal even though its initials (North Atlantic) do not reflect this.

Reluctant France

China has thus entered NATO’s core agenda. For now, there is no general agreement among the 29 allies about NATO’s role in the Indo-Pacific.

The most reluctant NATO partner in this regard is France. France still smarts from the informal English-speaking AUKUS alliance. and the scuppering of its nuclear-powered submarine contract with Canberra.  However, it is far from the only one that is reluctant.

Autocrats’ common goal: Dividing Europe, obstructing the U.S.

Meanwhile, all this is dividing Europe – the EU and Europe more broadly – at least as long as the tension and non-invasion of Ukraine persists.

This is important for Russia and convenient for China, which is making inroads into Eastern Europe and Central Asia. However, this inroad, due to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, comes much to Moscow’s disapproval. Which, in turn, shows the strategic competition between Moscow and Beijing.

As well as seeking to thwart NATO, China wants to prevent the U.S., which is also an Asiatic power in military terms, from constructing a network of alliances against it in Asia.

China’s new power pose

Nevertheless, at the UN Security Council’s recent meeting on Ukraine, the Chinese Ambassador, Zhang Jun, toed the official line.  He argued for “Russia’s legitimate security concerns to be taken seriously and addressed”.

China does not normally talk publicly about the European security order. But this time, in the joint statement, it declares that “the Chinese side is sympathetic to and supports the proposals put forward by the Russian Federation to create long-term legally binding security guarantees in Europe”.

And it opposes the expansion of NATO.

Strengthening China’s ties with Ukraine

China supports Russia, but not an armed Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In fact, China abstained in the Security Council in 2014 when there was an attempt to condemn the invasion and subsequent annexation of Crimea by Russia.  Beijing has never formally recognized it.

The reason is clear: With the Taiwan issue in mind, China advocates territorial integrity.

Focused on commerce

Moreover, China – forever mindful of its commercial interests – has strengthened its trade ties with Ukraine. This is especially evident in terms of grain imports, but also in the area of infrastructure.

A direct link by train and ferry between China and the Ukrainian port of Chornomorsk (formerly Illichivsk), on the Black Sea was opened in 2016, bypassing Russia.

China has also invested in a new metro line in Kiev. In other words, ties between China and Ukraine are strengthening, with the goal of increasing bilateral trade by 50%, and an annual total of $20 billion envisaged for 2025.

China’s problem

On the one hand, China could win international diplomatic prestige if it helped defuse the crisis in Ukraine.

On the other hand, the Chinese regime does not want the crisis between Russia and Ukraine to overshadow its Winter Olympics.

China and Russia united?

The relationship of the two powers also directly reflects the geopolitical, technological and ideological rivalry that characterizes our age.

China could be of great assistance to Russia in the event of new (and harsh) Western sanctions.  For example, it could buy more crude oil and gas and other raw materials and manufactured goods.

China could also help Russia withstand pressure from the West by offering the yuan as a substitute for the dollar, the use of which may be closed off to the Russians.

But these actions would obviously come with considerable costs attached concerning China’s relationship with the West. Western nations, quite literally, would not have China have their cake and eat it too.

Two in want of a new world order

That said, Moscow is looking for a new European and to some extent new world order.  So is Beijing, which is also pushing for a regional order in Asia aligned to its interests and concerns.

Putin’s Russia wants to restore its status as a great power, while China aspires to be a superpower, the only one that can successfully challenge the U.S. across a range of fields.

Apart from its oil and gas, Russia is economically much more closed than China, which is more dependent on global markets.

Conclusion: A poor outlook for the West

Although China and Russia have converged more than at any time since the Chinese communist revolution, including in the military realm, neither the interests of the two states nor their own national interests are completely aligned.

That being said, the current crisis makes Russia even more dependent on Beijing (when for many years it was the other way round). This is a poor outlook for the West.