Neither CPC leaders nor China’s state-sponsored international affairs think tank scholars indicated before February 24 if they had any idea of unpredictable and cascading consequences an actual Russian war on Ukraine would unleash. As Vladimir Putin appears certain of having abandoned any prospects of a diplomatic settlement to the Ukraine war – now into its third month – Beijing is suddenly looking clueless on how to deal with the graveness of the post Ukraine war “new” world?
The now “infamous” February 4 Xi-Putin joint statement “friendship between the two states [China and Russia] has no limits” has been interpreted, among other things, as President Xi’s full endorsement to President Putin’s “special military operation” in Ukraine. As the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine enters its third month, there are clear signs Beijing’s failure to anticipate the genocide-like war crimes being carried out on the Ukrainian people by the Russian military actions, is forcing the Chinese leadership to consider the political costs for China to continue to support President Putin. As one international politics expert has recently observed: “The Chinese are unhappy not only because the Russians proved unreliable, but because they prefer stability and order.” Moreover, under pressure in the year of a crucial National Congress of the party, speculations are ripe President Xi may sooner than later decide the “cost is too expensive.”
Fearing the price China might have to pay for supporting Putin, a Chinese scholar has warned: “international situation in the future is going to be quite severe, China must gear up to face it.” Remember, before the Russian military aggression, the widely held belief in China was that as long as China and Russia join forces they can form a strong deterrent to the US and Western bloc forces and can prevent the world being thrown into a chaos. Additionally, some Chinese also believed, just like Russia controls Europe’s energy and food supply, China too must strive to develop its economy and deeply integrate with the interests of the US and the Western bloc. This would ensure China’s peaceful rise due to time being on China’s side, they argued. However, the reality has turned totally different now.
Chinese Diplomacy’s Slippery Stance
Chinese diplomacy’s slippery stance over the ever-escalating Russian invasion in Ukraine is best described as haphazard and higgledy-piggledy. On the one hand, China has unyieldingly refused to condemn Russian military aggression. At the same time, China not only defended and endorsed Ukraine’s right to defend sovereignty as sacrosanct but it also offered to mediate a peaceful, diplomatic settlement between warring Ukraine and Russia. What is seen as most bizarre is Wang Yi telling his Ukrainian counterpart recently “it is China’s historical and cultural tradition and consistent foreign policy to uphold peace and oppose war.”
Even President Xi Jinping has been found lacking in clarity and conviction on China’s hodgepodge stance throughout the crisis in Ukraine. Perhaps Xi didn’t bother and left it entirely to his “bosom buddy” Putin to go ahead and do whatever was “good” for Moscow. There is another likely possibility, i.e. Xi and Putin might have called each other “bosom buddy” and “dear friend” respectively, but they don’t seem to enjoy the “friendship-luxury” to either inform each other of their respective actions/decisions on Taiwan and South China Sea on one hand, and on Central Asia and Eurasia on the other hand. As a Japanese China-watcher Kawashima Shin observed recently: “[Xi and Putin] may be close but are not too close. It should be stressed, however, that China and Russia are not allies.”
China Lost Its Way
It is of great significance to recall that in the reform and opening up era of the past four decades, Beijing exercised utmost caution and considerable restraint on international issues of conflicting nature. Examples abound when China was careful not to be perceived in Washington as “belligerent” or “hostile” to the US interests – Gulf War, Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) or even on the North Korean nuclear issue, including the recent Trump-Kim Jong-un. This Chinese behavior has been described as the result of “gauging correlation of forces.” As, at the height of ongoing US-China hostility, an international defense analyst Michael T. Klare, citing PRC-Taiwan escalating tensions wrote: “Despite claims to the island of Taiwan, China has so far avoided any direct move to seize it by force and risk a full-scale encounter with potentially superior US forces.”
Furthermore, in the absence of evidence that Putin had warned Xi during the two leaders’ “Olympics” summit about what was to come, various explanations are being offered by analysts in order to understand China’s changing stances on the Russian aggression between February 24 and now. One, China initially backed the Kremlin military action as Beijing views Russia strategically important in the context of unending US-China rivalry. Second, though China might have been caught off-guard with the “sudden” Russian military action, but for strategic reasons it chose to stand firmly by Russia. The third is China hoping that the Russian war in Europe would lead to both divisions in the European Union and a Europe divided in its support to the US. Therefore, Biden’s strategy to mobilize and unite the European allies to “stop” China would fail. And the fourth factor, perhaps more important than the previous three, was exclusively aimed at the domestic political constituency in the year of the crucial National Congress of the Party. That is, as against the recent isolation of China by the Western bloc, China’s strategic partnership with Russia is “rock solid.”
China’s Higgledy-Piggledy Assessment
Within days following the Russian military action in Ukraine, it started becoming clear to China that Beijing had seriously underestimated the “ferocity” of the US and European reaction to the Russian assault. At the same time, it was becoming apparent that the CPC was gravely mistaken in overestimating the Russian military capability to keep the “assault” short-lived. The following factors seem to have led China to scale down from its firm support to Russia in the initial days to slip into a confused and chaotic stance a few weeks later. One, not only the Chinese miserably failed in their intelligence inputs on the massive Russian military buildup on Ukraine borders, but when the Biden administration shared information, Beijing pitiably regurgitated Moscow’s assertion that Western intelligence was a mere propaganda.
Second, it is being argued that China’s leaders are quite unhappy not only because the Russians proved unreliable but also because their “bosom buddy” proved militarily and politically incapable in Ukraine, especially as the Ukrainian resistance is becoming formidable. Third, China does not want to damage good trade ties with the West, particularly with the EU and with the large economies in Europe. More so because repeated epidemic lockdowns are already threatening a 5.5% growth target becoming seemingly unrealistic and unachievable. Fourth, China appeared to have been caught in a bind as it believed just like in the Crimea eight years ago, this time round too Russia was carrying out a “rescue mission” in Donbas region. This explains why China didn’t display exigency in evacuating thousands of its own nationals stranded in Ukraine. Fifth, last but not least, already feeling frustrated and awkward by miscalculating the Russian game-plan in Ukraine, the Chinese leaders wisely started to “abruptly change” their apparent eagerness to broker a peace? As mentioned, this year being the year of the crucial twentieth CPC national congress, given the unreliability of the Russians, the Chinese leaders were not at all in a mood to risk a failure in mediating.
Wang Yi: Wars End Eventually
In short, it is common knowledge that it is not in the nature of the CPC or its leadership to admit its faulty assessment or tactical miscalculations. Yet it is sufficiently apparent from the debates in China that decision makers in Beijing seriously misjudged the Russia-Ukraine war as a “good” war for China. In a telling op-ed article on May 1, which attracted an unusually high readership running into over half a million in less than 24 hours, Professor Yang Guangbin, Dean, School of International Studies, Renmin University wrote, as if to alert the leadership: “The Ukraine war has greatly weakened Russia. As a result, the US/West have entered a highly incompatible security environment with Russia. The impact of such a grave situation on the US-China relations is not going to be easy to gauge.”
Imagine, then, in the face of alleged rising humanitarian crimes being carried out by the Russian forces against the civilians in Ukraine and in the backdrop of top Russian officials continuing to speak on the use of nuclear weapons, how anxious the Chinese leaders would be in the year of the crucial national party congress about the merits of continuing support to Russia? It is perhaps under such pressure Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi, otherwise known to be astute and insightful, made a most amusing remark, which surprisingly went unnoticed in the world media, in his online meeting with the Ukrainian foreign minister: “wars end eventually.” (My emphasis)