Ukraine crisis: why China’s hands are tied as Russia and the West face off
- A Russian invasion would benefit China but supporting that position would attract an EU backlash, win Taiwan support and leave Beijing with no wiggle room should Putin back down
If Russia invades Ukraine and precipitates a drawn-out conflict with the United States and its Western allies (though a direct military confrontation is unlikely), China obviously stands to benefit.
America would need to divert strategic resources to confront Russia, and its European allies would be even more reluctant to heed US entreaties to join America’s anti-China coalition.
Worse still, after Putin had skilfully exploited the US obsession with China to re-establish Russia’s sphere of influence, the strategic value of his China card may depreciate significantly.
For Putin, capitalising on Biden’s fear of being dragged into a conflict with a secondary adversary (Russia) to extract critical security concessions is a risky but smart move. But ordering an invasion of Ukraine – and thus effectively volunteering to be America’s primary geopolitical adversary, at least in the short to medium term – is hardly in the Kremlin’s interest.
Intriguingly, despite the high stakes for China in the Ukraine crisis, the Chinese government has been extremely careful about showing its hand.
While the heightened tensions dominate Western media headlines, Ukraine has received scant coverage in the official Chinese press. Editorials or commentaries voicing Chinese support for Russia are also notable by their absence.
Instead of explicitly endorsing Putin’s position, Xi’s statement was vague and general pabulum about “providing firm mutual support on issues involving each other’s core interests”.
Chinese reticence on Ukraine suggests that Xi is carefully hedging his bets. To be sure, Putin’s aggressive diplomacy is serving Chinese interests, at least for now. Should he decide to invade Ukraine and divert US strategic focus away from China, so much the better.
But, assuming that Xi does not know the Kremlin’s real intentions vis-à-vis Ukraine (it is doubtful that Putin has shared them with his Chinese counterpart), he is prudent not to show his own cards, either. Any expression of unequivocal Chinese support for Putin’s demands could leave China with little wiggle room.
Ukraine’s independence and security are crucial to the EU, and Chinese efforts to aid and abet Putin would trigger a European backlash. At a minimum, the EU could make China pay by restricting technology transfers and expressing more diplomatic support for Taiwan.
China’s leaders are realists and know that they can do little to influence the outcome of the crisis in Ukraine even if they choose to intervene publicly. With Putin holding most of the cards in the stand-off, China’s diplomatic support is unlikely to alter the strategic calculus of the principal protagonists in Washington, Brussels or even Moscow.
Its influence will increase dramatically only if Putin rolls the dice and invades Ukraine, because he will then need Chinese economic support to lessen the impact of Western sanctions.
But, for now, all this is speculative as far as Xi is concerned. Although a superpower, China is temporarily reduced to being an onlooker, watching both anxiously and hopefully on the sidelines as the Ukraine crisis unfolds.