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The war in Ukraine: China walking amid the shrapnel

Ricardo Borges de Castro

Date: 04/03/2022
It may be high time for the EU to abandon its strategic ambiguity and accept that China has become a strategic rival.

How long will China and its government stay on the sidelines while Russia engages in a war of aggression in Ukraine? Is Beijing ready to condemn President Putin’s revisionism and violation of an independent country’s territorial integrity and sovereignty? What are President Xi’s long-term goals?

A systemic rival, at last

Since the start of Putin’s war on Ukraine last week, China remained mostly on the sidelines. Beijing’s recent criticism of Russia’s harm inflicted on civilians in Ukraine suggests that it may be gradually distancing itself from Moscow, but the jury is still out.

As for Europe, this is a watershed moment for Beijing. The choices it makes now will define its future relations with the EU and the West in general. The current reluctance to take a firmer stance will drive Europeans further away from China and embolden the transatlantic relationship – something Beijing has tried hard to undermine.

In the end, Chinese officials might finally get what they want; that the EU drops its triple ‘partner, competitor, rival’ approach for a single strategy. But the outcome might not be exactly what Beijing is aiming for: a sealed ‘systemic rivalry’ approach.

What is more, siding with Putin at this historical juncture shatters the long-held idea that China is a ‘status quo power’. Many doubted China’s commitment to the current global order since Xi came to power. Now there may be no more doubts left if Beijing does not condemn Putin’s aggression against Ukraine.

The longer it lasts

No one will ever know what President Putin or President Xi were thinking when they met on 4 February in Beijing for a summit that sealed a “friendship [that] has no limits” between both nations and may well go down in history as a prelude for war. Perhaps the implicit plan in both leaders’ minds was that Russia would not invade Ukraine before the Beijing Winter Olympics were over and that the so-called ‘military operation’ in Eastern Ukraine would lead to a swift toppling of President Zelenskyy’s government and regime change.

The military invasion was indeed launched only a few days after the end of the Games. But the resistance mounted by Ukrainians and the Ukrainian Armed Forces against an overwhelming military invading force was seriously miscalculated by Moscow. 

The longer the war lasts, the harder it will be for Beijing to keep saying that “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries should be respected and upheld, and the purposes and principles of the UN Charter should be jointly upheld” and then do nothing or fail to repudiate the Kremlin’s actions. Abstentionism in times of war, as China did in the UN Security Council and at the General Assembly, where an overwhelming majority condemned Putin’s actions, has political costs too.

Going ahead, Beijing may need to make difficult decisions.

Strategy by failure or design?

Could it be that the greatest strategic minds in Beijing miscalculated the whole situation, assuming that, once more, Europeans would be weak and divided in their response and Washington would overstep its leadership, leading to a deeper divide between both sides of the Atlantic? Could it be that they turned a blind eye to an invasion they thought would be over in a few days? Or worse, were they misled by Putin?

Beijing now faces a greater dilemma: Not taking a stand will further strengthen transatlantic relations and consolidate the idea that the West and like-minded countries must jointly confront a new axis of authoritarians. And this conundrum can worsen. After all, 141 countries condemned Russia’s aggression in Ukraine at the UN.

Conversely, taking a stand and abandoning Putin to his fate may earn plaudits worldwide. But it would also put Beijing squarely in Washington’s camp. Is President Xi ready to go down this path and use this moment to mend ties with the US?

China is unlikely to ditch Putin completely. Beijing will continue to ask for a cessation of hostilities and offer to play a role in negotiating a ceasefire. It will urge Russia and Ukraine to sit at a table. It will carry on arguing that a “country’s security cannot be at the expense of others’ security” and that “absolute security” is unattainable. These statements could have very well been drafted by the Kremlin and, in practice, could mean the future demilitarisation of Ukraine, turning it into a neutral state unable to determine its future as a sovereign state.

Walking amid the shrapnel

China will continue to walk amid the shrapnel as it calculates the medium- to long-term gains (and costs) of its position. For now, the gains may outweigh the costs.

For one, in the medium to long term, the current war is weakening Russia, which only has grim options now: a long war of occupation and resistance, or a humiliating defeat. Moscow will also be faced with growing internal discontent due to the massive economic sanctions that will start hitting the pockets of average Russians.

Beijing may want to prop the Kremlin’s regime and throw it an economic lifeline. This could incur political and economic costs if secondary sanctions target Beijing. But China may be willing to take the hits in exchange for a weaker and more dependent neighbour.

Secondly, the economic hardship that Russia is bound to feel from the sanctions will also hurt the global economy badly, particularly Europe’s. In the medium term, the economic consequences of a war on top of those of a pandemic will slow down the world’s recovery and thus weaken the West.

China may also feel some of the economic costs of this new crisis, given the level of interdependence of its economy with the rest of the world. But if Beijing’s plan is for self-reliance and ‘dual circulation’ to reduce its vulnerability to external shocks, the current crisis may just be an accelerator of its most recent Five-Year Plan.

Thirdly, Russia’s aggression to Ukraine as well as to Europe’s security architecture and liberal-democratic order binds the US further to the old continent. If the conflict were to spread beyond Ukraine, only NATO and the US would be capable of guaranteeing Europe’s territorial integrity.

This would slow down Washington’s pivot to Asia and divert US attention from China and the Indo-Pacific – at least, for the time being. Beijing may be willing to pay this price not to have the Americans meddling in its backyard.

The end of strategic ambiguity

China holds some of the cards that could put an end to Putin’s war of aggression in Ukraine. But it is unlikely to use them unless the costs of holding them closer to its chest outweigh the benefits of not using them at all. Beijing does not seem to enjoy the responsibilities that come with a global power status and will follow the path that best serves its narrow interests.

After the end of Europe’s strategic ambiguity towards Russia, it may also be time to recognise China for what it is. If Beijing chooses not to condemn Putin’s war of aggression and help stop it, the EU must assume that China has become a strategic rival and act accordingly.

Ricardo Borges de Castro is Associate Director and Head of the Europe in the World programme at the European Policy Centre.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

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