Having the cake and eating it too – China’s balancing act following the Russian invasion of Ukraine

April 25, 2022
The consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine are reverberating around the world. Sanctions are mounting and logistics chains have been disrupted. Countries are re-evaluating their security policies and diplomatic positions as they try to navigate the new reality. The Russian invasion has put China in a serious diplomatic and economic predicament, from which it has little chance to escape without suffering a diplomatic blow.
Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, source: http://www.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/60669/photos
On 4th of February 2022, Vladmir Putin and Xi Jinping met at the inauguration of the 2022 Olympic winter games in Beijing. Their subsequent discussions resulted in a joint statement declaring a partnership between the two countries and “no limits” on areas of cooperation - twenty days later, Russia invaded Ukraine. 

China now has three clear options: aiding Russia, condemning Russia, or pursuing the difficult act of balancing neutrality. All these options have implications for China. 

Option One: Aiding Russia

The Wall Street Journal reported that Russia has been requesting for military aid from China in the form of equipment, perhaps as a test of China’s commitment to the partnership. The partnership does not entail any obligation of military support, but should China provide any military support it would considerably strengthen the partnership. A strong reason China may pursue this strategy is to try to mitigate risks to its own national security should China find itself in a similar position as Russia - suffering from Western sanctions. Unlike Russia, China is not endowed with an excess of natural resources so teaming up with Russia would guarantee safe access to these much-needed resources while also hedging against a naval blockade. 

The downside of this approach is that a perceived attempt to undermine Western sanctions could spur some imposition of sanctions on China as well. Western countries constitute an overwhelming proportion of the Chinese trade, while trade with Russia constitutes a meager 2 %. Western sanctions would have serious implications on the Chinese economy, whose growth is already slowing. China could gamble that the sanctions would backfire, dealing an economic blow to Western counties thus deterring the West from imposing them. However, it would be a risky gambit, given the apparent resolve with which the West has moved to sanction Russia. 

There would also be loss of prestige for China which has long promoted an international order where other countries should not meddle in sovereign countries’ internal affairs. Aiding a partner who violates one of the cornerstones of China’s position on international norms would open China to accusations of hypocrisy. This is especially poignant after China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, recognized Ukrainian’s sovereignty in the first week of the invasion.

Option Two: Condemning Russia

If China joins the West in its condemnation of the Russian invasion and imposes sanctions, the Russo-Sino partnership would be declared dead on arrival. China could use this new position to improve its relationship with the West, most importantly the US. This might lead to concessions on certain sanctions and boost Chinese economic growth. However, it is unlikely that the West will be able to offer China anything that would make this reorientation worthwhile in the long-term, especially if the narrative of unavoidable strategic competition between the US and China persists. 

On the other hand, Russia offers China an opportunity to hedge against Western sanctions through secure access to non-sea dependent natural resources, as well as access to advanced weaponry, with close to 20 % of Russian weapons exports going to China. However, recent reports indicate that China’s domestic weapon industry has substantially decreased its dependency on Russian weapons, and that the tables might even have turned, putting Russia in a potential position of reliance on Chinese weapons, following the invasion. 

China also stands to benefit from a short conflict, which would quickly neutralize all the disturbances in trade routes, and the diplomatic pressure to take a side in the conflict. Should China impose sanctions on Russia it could shorten the duration of the conflict, as Russia would become increasingly isolated from the global economy, crippling its long-term ability to wage war.

Option Three: Strategic ambiguity

The third option is the delicate act of strategic ambiguity. This scenario involves China doing its utmost to not openly pick a side and pray for a quick end. By not picking a side China could maintain its relationship with the West (and avoid sanctions) as well as protecting its relationship with Russia (with all strategic benefits). 

This strategy comes with more risks compared to the other two. There is the risk that either the West or Russia calls its bluff and forces one of the two other scenarios, striping China of agency. It could be Russia asking for aid, which the Chinese might be hesitant to provide, to avoid antagonizing the West, but could cause the Sino-Russian partnership to falter (without any improvements of the relationship with the West). The West could interpret China’s passivity as supporting Russia, triggering the imposition of sanctions against China (while also leaving the Russians unhappy with the limited or absent support). This strategy benefits from a short duration of the war, limiting the time for either party to force a decision. 

The Chinese bid to act as a mediator in the war could be a sign of wanting to end the conflict as soon as possible, but it is unclear how China will be able to convince any side to agree to any concessions that would put an end to the war.  The passiveness and lack of support for Russia also risks leaving the Chinese with a greatly weakened partner, should Russia fail to achieve a decisive victory or even lose the war due to lack of support. 

So which strategy is China pursuing?

At the time there is no immediate urgency for China to make a decision on its strategic position on the war in Ukraine. However, the apparent reluctance of China to support or condemn the invasion, indicates that they are either actively pursuing the third strategy of strategic ambiguity (a high risk, high reward strategy), or they are still undecided. But every day the war goes on the pressure mounts to take a stance in this war, as the stakes are increasing. China’s position will likely crystale as the outcome of the war becomes more predictable.

Marcus Björk
Head of Politics, Marcus is a student of the master’s program in Asian Studies at Lund University.
Privacy Policy