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Why China Won’t Condemn Putin’s Ukraine War

China Aircraft Carrier
A Chinese Aircraft Carrier on the high-seas. Image Credit: Chinese Internet.

Does China Have a Russia Problem? As the war in Ukraine drags on, the international community’s accusatory glare has extended beyond Russia to other states that allegedly support the war. China’s diplomatic dance to reconcile ‘respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty’ and ‘Russia’s legitimate security interests’ in Ukraine stands out in this regard. Given the gravity of the situation, the pressure on China from the United States and its allies to assign blame for the war is growing.

By not distancing itself from Moscow, Beijing bears serious reputational costs and potentially risks becoming a target of secondary economic sanctions in the future. Whether Beijing was informed by Russia in advance or not, it did not want to see this war in its current form. Yet China is unlikely to explicitly condemn Russia, press Russia to stop the war or undermine its strategic alignment with Russia. US President Joe Biden’s unsuccessful negotiations with Chinese President Xi Jinping underscored this reality.

Why is Beijing so adamant that it is not going to join the global campaign to isolate Russia?

The root cause is Beijing’s growing recognition that China and the United States are on a long-term collision course that is unlikely to change. As illustrated by relevant theoretical works, an established superpower (the United States) represents the greatest threat to states (China) that are on the cusp of becoming superpowers. Conversely, emerging superpowers pose the gravest threats to the established hegemons.

US policies towards China over the last decade confirm that Washington has irreversibly embarked on a strategy of containing China, which started long before the current Ukraine crisis. Beijing views the US ‘Rebalancing to Asia’ and the ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ as attempts to counter China’s growing geopolitical clout.

As early as January 2012, Washington adopted strategic guidelines that identified China as an anti-access threat in the Asia Pacific and announced a new approach to organising its military power. The new Joint Operational Access Concept required increasing the deployment of US naval capabilities to the Asia Pacific. The 2017 US National Security Strategy, in turn, called China Washington’s major adversary.

The US Third Offset Strategy is a defence innovation initiative to counteract strategic technological advantages made by top US adversaries, aimed at sustaining the US military advantage and ensuring the capacity to win a war. It explicitly targets China and includes steps to engage Beijing in a direct military-technological competition that is projected to be long-term and result in an arms race.

These actions contribute to the perception of the United States as China’s greatest national security threat and compel Chinese strategists to make Washington the primary focus of China’s defence policy.

Beijing is also taking the recently minted AUKUS initiative as an anti-China alliance. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morison stated that there is a growing threat from a China-led ‘arc of autocracy’. To push back against the China threat, he announced a new US$10 billion submarine base for Australia’s east coast. The project will enable regular visits by US and UK nuclear-powered submarines.

The United States is also pursuing the economic containment of China. The most recent developments included US–China trade and tariff wars, multiple incidents of entry-visa denials on both sides, embargoes on goods and a ban on Chinese 5G mobile network technology. This downward trend further accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic when the new political trope — ‘the Chinese virus’ — was created.

The most puzzling episode, from the standpoint of persuading China to distance itself from Russia, is the strong US backing of Taiwan, which includes high-profile arms sales and visits by top US officials to Taipei. Biden has essentially continued most of the Trump-era policies toward Taiwan. Ten days into the Ukraine war, former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo travelled to Taipei to advocate that Washington should ‘take necessary and long-overdue steps to do the right and obvious thing’ — to recognise a ‘free and independent’ Taiwan. For Beijing, Taiwan’s independence is unacceptable.

The final drop is the Western hypocrisy around India’s stance on the war in Ukraine. India, like China, never condemned Russia and through its purchases of crude oil from Russia, is supporting Moscow perhaps more explicitly than China. There were mild attempts to warn India of some consequences if it tries to circumvent the US sanctions against Russia. But those warnings are nowhere close to the pressure and rhetoric being targeted at China.

Instead, the Quad has tolerated India’s position on Ukraine by highlighting that ‘each country has a bilateral relationship’, which is why ‘no one has ever accused India of supporting what is going on in Ukraine’. So from China’s perspective, the US criticism of Beijing is not about whether China is with or against Russia.

Unless the fundamentals of US–China relations change, it is unlikely that China would risk undermining its strategic alignment with Russia.

Alexander Korolev is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of New South Wales, Sydney. This first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist. 

Written By

Alexander Korolev is Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at the University of New South Wales, Sydney.