China’s Position On the War in Ukraine: special report by Warsaw Institute

China’s Position On the War in Ukraine: special report by Warsaw Institute

Photo: ua.depositphotos.com / rabbit75_dep
14 August 2023
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China sees the war in Ukraine as a matter of resistance to the West that might belittle the importance of the United States and its allies worldwide. Thus, China is tightening ties with Russia while setting the stage for a diplomatic push to settle the conflict via negotiations. The war in Ukraine brings both opportunities and challenges for China.

This report was prepared by the Warsaw Institute. VoxCheck team adapted the text for its readers.

Chinese stand on the war in its early days

China’s perception of Russian aggression evolved as the war ground on. Beijing had no clear stance on the war, with its state media outlets broadcasting somewhat chaotic content. On February 25, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi had phone conversations with UK Foreign Secretary Elizabeth Truss, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell, and French Diplomatic Advisor to President Emmanuel Bonne. In a statement, China said that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries should be respected and encouraged all diplomatic efforts conducive to a peaceful settlement of the Ukraine crisis. Importantly, Beijing did not condemn the Russian invasion nor did it refer to the events as aggression or war. China echoed the Russian argument that Moscow’s war on Ukraine was due to a failed security architecture in Europe. China also upheld the declaration that Xi and Putin had signed in Beijing hours before the Beijing Winter Olympics officially opened on February 4, 2022. The statement declared support for Chinese interests in the Indo-Pacific and Russian security demands in Europe. The declaration referred to the Sino-Russian vision of a new global order, aimed at eroding the importance of the United States worldwide. China has abstained from voting on UN Security Council and General Assembly draft resolutions condemning the Russian aggression. However, on April 7, 2022, Beijing voted against suspending Russia from the UN Human Rights Council amid Russian war crimes in Bucha. The Chinese stand on the Russian invasion of Ukraine hinged on the latest developments in Ukraine and Russia’s military failures at the beginning of the war.

Russia wrongly assumed it could sweep into the whole country and the war might last longer than expected. Meanwhile, China was shocked by a firm response from the United States and the European Union as both sanctioned Russia and offered military supplies to war-torn Ukraine.

Strengthening strategic cooperation with Russia

China has been eager to provide support to Russia since the invasion began. Beijing believes the war might compromise the position of the European Union and the United States worldwide, as a path towards a new global order where China could take a prominent position. China does not throw full support to Russia as it is pushing for its core interests.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi on March 30, 2022, held talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, in the southeastern Chinese province of Anhui. In a joint statement, the Chinese and Russian chief diplomats agreed to expand the Sino-Russian strategic partnership. Lavrov stressed the two countries made continuous efforts towards a multipolar and democratic global order. Both sides also condemned the Western sanctions imposed in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

In April 2022, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed a global security initiative that would uphold the principle of indivisible security. The initiative, which was formally released on February 21, 2023, contained twenty roadmaps for cooperation. In the statement, China pledged its impartial stance on the Ukraine conflict, calling for peace talks. China urged all parties to carry out security cooperation and stay committed to:

  • maintaining the vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security;
  • respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries,
  • abiding by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter,
  • taking the legitimate security concerns of all countries seriously,
  • peacefully resolving differences and disputes between countries through dialogue and consultation,
  • maintaining security in both traditional and non-traditional domains.

China keeps parroting its propaganda to portray Beijing as a leader of a sustainable and peaceful world. The Chinese government has been eager to position itself as a peace broker to end the war between Russia and Ukraine since the invasion began. At the same time, Beijing blames the West for taking sides by sending defensive weapons to war-torn Ukraine.

Chinese peace proposal

A year into the Russian invasion of Ukraine, China proposed a peace plan for dealing with the war. The 12-point document is part of Beijing’s latest efforts to present itself as a neutral peace broker, although it looks more like a political game rather than a real effort to stop the war.

In Point 1, Beijing calls for the uniform application of international law in respecting the sovereignty of all countries. China has not condemned the war in Ukraine or explicitly called it an invasion. In Point 2, the Chinese government urges Western states to abandon the Cold War era mentality while taking aim at military bloc expansion in a scathing criticism of Western aid to Ukraine. China’s propaganda narrative portrays Western aid for Ukraine as aggressive actions towards Russia that further escalate the conflict. The Chinese government hints at its support for Russia, claiming that any security concerns should be tackled seriously.

In Points 3 and 4, Beijing argues that all parties should cease hostilities and foster conditions that enable the resumption of ceasefire negotiations, respectively. Since the beginning of the war, China depicted the Russian aggression as a conflict between two states, urging them to cease hostilities while ignoring the mere fact that Russia invaded Ukraine. China yet did not condemn the war in Ukraine or called it an invasion. With the next two points of the peace plan, China calls upon the parties to prioritize humanitarian operations and abide by international law, avoiding attacks on civilian facilities or personnel and giving humane treatment to prisoners of war.

In Points 7 and 8, the Chinese government advocated for all parties to comply with nuclear security. Beijing withstood any attacks on nuclear plants or other civilian facilities while urging all parties to comply with the 1994 Convention on Nuclear Safety and avoid manmade nuclear disasters. They declare that employment of nuclear weapons must be off the table, brushing aside strategic risks. China opposed any threats to deploy nuclear weapons while urging all parties to avoid nuclear disasters. While hinting at any nuclear issues, China meant Russia as it is vital for China to make Moscow take back its nuclear threats.

In Points 9 and 11, China urged all parties to facilitate grain exports to foster global food security and keep supply chains stable to prevent it from disrupting international cooperation in energy, finance, food trade, and transportation and undermining the global economic recovery. Beijing also proposed to launch the Black Sea Grain Initiative to unlock grain supplies to the Middle East and Africa. In Point 10, Beijing asserted that unilateral sanctions and maximum pressure cannot solve the issue, insinuating that such measures were escalating the conflict. Last but not least, China stood ready to provide assistance and play a constructive role in the post-conflict reconstruction of Ukraine.

The Chinese propaganda attempts to help resolve the Ukraine war via the 12-point plan for negotiations have been met with hostility from Ukraine and its Western allies. The Chinese government rejects what it named a “Cold War mentality”, hoping the West stops sending aid to Ukraine and eases sanctions on Russia.

Xi’s visit to Moscow

Chinese and Russian foreign ministers met on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in March 2023. China was the only country not to condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine at the meeting of G20 foreign ministers but promised to continue to work for Russia and other countries to protect peace, security, and prosperity. Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Moscow from March 21 to 23, 2023, a trip that showed Beijing’s support for Russia in its clash with Western nations. Two declarations were signed on

  • deepening the strategic partnership and bilateral ties, which are entering a new era, and
  • on priorities in China-Russia economic cooperation by 2030.

The former of them is a political declaration of China whose government is seeking to take the lead in a new world order. The statement also corroborates Russian ambitions to assist Beijing.

The second paper provides for a new legal entity to develop the Northern Sea Route — a set of sea routes connecting the Bering Sea with the northern Atlantic Ocean. The two leaders have committed to cooperating on a range of economic and business areas, agreeing to settle trade between Russia and China — and other countries — in yuan.

High on the meeting agenda was a Chinese peace proposal. The Russian president claimed just a few points could serve as the core of peace talks with Ukraine, suggesting that Russia would not accept the remaining provisions. The meeting revealed the distinct interests of Russia and China. While Putin is seeking to enjoy ample Chinese support and fuel confrontation between Washington and Beijing, Chinese authorities make continuous efforts to reduce the costs of their support for Russia — while keeping its ties with the United States at bay.

The Chinese response to the G7 Summit

This year’s G7 summit in Hiroshima, held from May 19 to 21, 2023, welcomed the leaders of the G7 countries — the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, France, and Japan, as well as UE officials, including the president of the European Commission and the president of the European Council.  Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi also attended the summit. The G7 had once been the G8, before Russia was expelled in 2014 for its illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. The G7 members discussed the Russian invasion of Ukraine, among other topics. In a statement, the G7 countries took a firm stance on Russia and China.

They reiterated their unwavering support to Ukraine and pledged to impose further sanctions and measures to increase the costs to Russia. Notably, the G7 leaders pledged to ensure that exports of all items critical to Russia’s aggression including those used by Russia on the battlefield are restricted and take steps to prevent Russian efforts to avoid punitive measures. The leaders also made a commitment to further reduce ways for Russia to circumvent our financial measures including by preventing third-country branches of Russian banks from being used to avoid sanctions. They vowed to continue to work closely together to restrict trade in and use of diamonds mined, processed, or produced in Russia and reduce the revenues that Russia extracts from the export of energy and metals. 

The statement referred to China and welcomed a new coordination platform for counteracting economic coercion. The G7 members strongly opposed any unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion in the South China Sea. They also urged Russia to stop its ongoing aggression and completely withdraw its troops and military equipment from Ukraine as well as encouraged China to back a lasting peace based on territorial integrity in line with the UN Charter. The statement marked a strong criticism of Beijing as the G7 countries stated there is no change in the basic positions of the G7 members on Taiwan. The leaders of the world’s most industrialized nations said that the human rights situation in Tibet was a major concern to them.

At the end of the summit, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak described China as authoritarian, saying Beijing posed the biggest challenge of this age to global security and prosperity. The British official said the G7 and other countries should work together to make sure that they can de-risk themselves and the vulnerability of supply chains from China.

This triggered a critical response from the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson, who accused the G7 countries of interfering in China’s internal affairs. Beijing summoned Japan’s ambassador after the summit and warned the UK against slander as it condemned China-related criticism at the Hiroshima meeting. The Chinese foreign ministry accused the G7 countries of eroding stability in the region and blocking the development of other states.

Conclusions

China considers the war in Ukraine an opportunity to undermine the reputation of the United States and the European Union worldwide and speed up shifts in the global order, where Beijing might serve a vital role. Beijing took its most important decision to bolster strategic ties with Russia in order to deal a blow to Western nations. Beijing shouldered its souring diplomatic and economic relations with Western nations, seeking to compromise the United States and the European Union worldwide. China seeks to nurture cooperation with Russia as Moscow’s trade dependencies are on the rise. Total trade between China and Russia hit a new record high in 2022, up 30 percent. China became, by far and away, the most important trading partner of Moscow. Beijing is in need of cheap energy while, as Western countries restricted technology supply, Russia’s semiconductor imports from China sky-rocketed.

China has learned lessons from Russia’s war against Ukraine that could set the stage for a crisis over Taiwan. Any conflict over Taiwan could consolidate Western nations to impose sanctions on China, which is why Beijing has postponed its military moves on the island. A drawback was also a blow dealt to Beijing’s economic ties with the EU and Ukraine as these two consider China a Russian ally.

The Chinese attempts to help resolve the Ukraine war via a peace plan for negotiations is just a propaganda strategy that in fact offers no constructive solution to cease the Russian invasion. Beijing’s proposals are not aimed at stopping hostilities, and Beijing does not care about brokering a peace deal. The authorities in Beijing believe it is crucial to divert attention from the Sino-Russian rapprochement and to target all countries of the global south with a propaganda narrative blaming the EU and NATO for the Ukraine war while nurturing the image of China as a peace broker keen on constructive solutions.

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