Russia’s unsuccessful blitzkrieg in Ukraine turned into a long-term test not only for the armies but the economies of the two countries as well. The Russians have been building up a financial cushion for decades through oil and gas exports, so the advantage was on their side. But anti-Russian sanctions and support for Ukraine provided by the European Union, the United States, and other Western countries made it possible to alter the course of the “war of attrition.”
However, the question remained: “Whose side is China on?” An answer to that may hasten the end of the war. So far, the Chinese authorities remain silent and adhere to formal neutrality, which is perceived as supporting the aggressor state. At the same time, Chinese state propaganda promotes the narrative of Russia’s rightness inside the country and abroad. In particular, all pro-Ukrainian posts have been removed from Chinese social networks, and Chinese media sent journalists to work among Russian troops in Ukraine.
Not giving a definite answer is a tradition of the PRC, associated with the peculiarities of Eastern diplomacy. But it raises concern as it can indicate insecurity or hidden support for the aggressor.
It is difficult to see China as a state that is not confident in its strength. It is the world’s second largest economy, which has long outgrown the status of a world factory of consumer goods. It has a powerful industry and a developed military-industrial complex that produces a wide range of products, from small arms and armoured vehicles to aircraft carriers and jet aircraft that could come in handy for Russian dictator Vladimir Putin.
That is why it is very important to get a clear position from the People’s Republic of China regarding Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Otherwise, its “neutrality” will always have the “taste” of supporting dictator Putin.
It is only worth mentioning that when Russia vetoed the UN Security Council resolution condemning Moscow’s attempted annexation of a part of Ukraine on 30 September, China was not among the 10 Security Council member states that supported the document. China, along with India, Brazil and Gabon, abstained, creating the illusion of multi-vector world order. This adds nervousness to the geopolitical situation and creates a wave of rumours and fakes that affect China’s international reputation.
Causes of indecision
This indecision is usually associated with several application goals. The first is China’s ambitions related to Taiwan, a partially recognised state that enjoys a lot of Western support. China, which considers this island as its part, might explore the “red lines” that the collective West can forgive in case of a full-scale invasion of Taiwan, using the example of the Russian-Ukrainian war. However, the West has determination, as we all remember, the August visit of American top politician Nancy Pelosi to the island despite threats from the PRC.
The second is the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in October 2022, at which the new General Secretary of the Communist Party will be elected. Usually, the anticipation of such events also does not promote drastic statements.
The third reason for the chosen “neutrality” is the desire to make a profit at the expense of a weakening neighbour.
Just business and humanitarian issue
The EU, the USA, and other G7 countries have been actively implementing anti-Russian sanctions since 24 February 2022. However, China remains among those still keeping its economy open to Russia. The country increases purchases of Russian oil, imports gas and rolled metal, and sells its goods to Russians.
This is the usual pragmatism as Russia gives big discounts on its industrial products and energy. However, cooperation with Russian companies is almost a direct financing of the Russian military machine.
It is noteworthy that the People’s Republic of China does not even transfer the obtained profits for solving humanitarian problems, although pointing to them. At the UN Security Council meeting on 7 September, China’s Deputy Permanent Representative to the United Nations Geng Shuang stated that the international community should continue to provide support to Ukraine and neighbouring countries.
But these are just words. As of September, it is known only about the assistance provided by the PRC back in March. These are two tranches worth $2.36 million – figures incomparable to Ukraine’s support obtained from the G7 or the size of the Chinese economy.
At the end of March, the 23rd EU-China Summit was held, at which EU leaders tried to convince Beijing not to support Russia in its war against Ukraine. “We count on China’s support to achieve a lasting ceasefire, to stop the unjustifiable war and address the dramatic humanitarian crisis it has generated,” said European Council President Charles Michel.
Note that during the dialogue between the EU and China, the latter simply repeated the narratives of Russian propaganda, blaming NATO for Russia’s actions. Meanwhile, the PRC’s non-compliance with sanctions against Russia emphasises the PRC’s disrespect for international problems, EU norms and institutions.
By the way, China has not yet provided open military support to the Russians officially. However, there are other ways to help the aggressor. It is the already mentioned disregard for sanctions and vote in the UN that creates a “diversity of opinions” beneficial to the Russians.
“No European citizen would understand any support to Russia’s ability to wage war. Moreover, it would lead to a major reputational damage for China here in Europe,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen warned in March.
However, there were no joint statements or decisions made following the Summit. In the final press release by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China, the war in Ukraine was called the “Ukrainian crisis,” while the Russian-invented wording “special military operation” was also not used. China’s Communist Party leader Xi Jinping called for “peace negotiations.”
The six months that have passed since that meeting have not changed the behaviour of Russia and dictator Vladimir Putin. Statements and actions crossed all the lines of international law and are aimed only at the escalation of events.
Therefore, it is possible that the EU should initiate another meeting with China and find more convincing arguments for Chinese political leaders.
Ukraine also has personal reasons for the PRC’s more favourable attitude as Chinese industry and the military-industrial complex developed in partnership with our state.
For several decades, Ukrainian metallurgists have been supplying China with rolled metal and iron ore, which has enabled this eastern country to become the world’s largest steel producer and exporter.
No less interesting is the military cooperation between the People’s Republic of China and Ukraine, all the features of which are unlikely to be made public in the near future. But it is impossible not to notice certain events.
On 17 June, the third Chinese aircraft carrier Fujian was launched in Shanghai, which became yet another demonstration of China’s military capabilities. Therefore, it is worth recalling the role of Ukraine in the development of this area of the naval forces of the People’s Republic of China. The first Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning was built in Mykolaiv, Ukraine, and sold unfinished to China in 1998. Its design became the basis for the creation of the second and third Chinese aircraft carriers.
There are other examples in which the role of the PRC was clearer. In 2020, China became the major buyer of Ukrainian grain. That is, Ukraine became one of the guarantors of food security of the Celestial Empire. But this year, the export of agricultural products stopped due to Russian aggression and the blockade of Black Sea ports. This might have been a painful blow to the PRC because foreign minister Wang Yi called for “promoting a ceasefire as soon as possible to ensure a green corridor for grain exports” as early as May. At the end of July, the “grain corridor” started to work.
Against this background, China’s promise to provide Ukraine with $790,000 in aid looks ridiculous given the size of its economy and great power rhetoric. The stark contrast to China’s “boundless” partnership with Russia could not be clearer.
It appears that while Ukraine helped the PRC build a modern army, including the PRC’s first aircraft carrier and air-launched cruise missiles, when the war broke out, China chose Russia.
The active stance of the People’s Republic of China instead of “neutrality” could have allowed solving the complicated geopolitical situation with Ukraine at the core. At the same time, China’s turning a blind eye to Russia’s flagrant violations of international law, disrespect for the principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty, undermines the world order, its existing norms and rules. The question arises: “Will China support Russia’s invasion of other world countries?”