Chinese diplomats contend that Beijing’s position on the “Russia-Ukraine conflict” (俄乌冲突 E wu chongtu) or the “Ukraine issue” (乌克兰问题, Wukelan wenti ) is “consistent and clear” (一贯的、明确的, yiguan de, mingque de) (People’s Republic of China Ministry of Foreign Affairs [FMPRC], May 5). However, China’s paradoxical stance on the Russia-Ukraine War underscores the difficulties that Beijing faces in carrying out sophisticated diplomacy. This has already had repercussions for China’s national interests and ability to achieve its foreign policy objectives. Therefore, any change of course by Beijing coming out of the recently concluded 20th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress, appears unlikely.
Throughout the Russia-Ukraine War, China has neither condemned Russia, nor endorsed Ukraine for its resistance and self-defense. However, official discourse indicates the PRC’s supportive posture towards Russia. For example, Beijing consistently accuses the West, primarily the U.S., of provoking Moscow through “constant eastward expansion by NATO” (北约不断东扩, beiyue buduan dong kuo). During his recent visit to Russia, National People’s Congress Standing Committee Chairman Li Zhanshu (栗战书) stated that China “understands and supports Russia” and echoed the Kremlin’s narrative that “the United States and NATO are expanding directly on Russia’s doorstep, threatening its national security and the lives of its citizens” (Twitter, September 13). Furthermore, in the first phone call between Chinese FM, Wang Yi (王毅) and his Russian counterpart Sergiei Lavrov following the 20th Party Congress, Wang said that China “firmly supports the Russian side, under the leadership of President Putin, to unite and lead the Russian people to overcome difficulties, eliminate disturbances, realize the strategic development goals and further establish Russia’s status as a major power on the international stage” (FMPRC, October 27). He also expressed China’s desire to deepen exchanges with Russia at all levels in order to promote international stability in a turbulent world.
At the same time that Beijing has lent some rhetorical and practical support to Moscow, China has stressed that on Ukraine it is necessary to adhere to the principles of the UN Charter: upholding sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries; resolving disputes in a peaceful way; and not imposing unilateral sanctions (FMPRC, March 7). Chinese officials also appeal to all countries to make independent judgments (独立自主作出判断, dulizizhu zuochu panduan) on the Ukraine situation (FMPRC, March 23; China Brief, October 19). These appeals to the UN Charter are reasonable and right, but China’s political backing of Russia and refusal to recognize Ukraine as a victim of aggression demonstrates disregard for the very principles that Beijing has called for adherence to since the outbreak of war. In its international conduct, the PRC often compromises its own rules and norms. This is neither new nor is Beijing’s conduct unique in this regard. However, hitherto, the PRC has applied a double standard to its diplomacy in a rather sophisticated way that has limited the costs to its interests and international image. I have argued, for example, that China’s land reclamation and militarization of the South China Sea or demonstration of its military power in the Taiwan Strait, despite being worrisome steps, were not very damaging to China’s interests. The best example is Taiwan, which continues to demonstrate only limited concern over a potential PRC invasion. However, the PRC’s explicit endorsement of Putin’s Russia is a significant step further, which highlights the inconsistency in China’s foreign policy and undercuts its diplomatic relations with the West in general and Europe in particular.
Growing Inconsistency in Chinese Diplomacy
In neither condemning Russia nor endorsing Ukraine, Beijing openly contravenes its putative commitment to upholding the UN Charter. Article 2 (4) of the Charter says: “all Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” Article 51 stipulates the universal right to self-defense “if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations” (United Nations, October 24, 1945). Furthermore, China is breaching, in an explicit way, its own “sacred” Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence (和平共处的五项原则, heping gongchu de wu xiang yuanze )—commonly regarded as a cornerstone modern PRC diplomacy. The Five Principles, which are part of the PRC constitution are premised on opposition to all forms of external interference: mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity (互相尊重主权和领土完整, huxiang zunzhong zhuquan he lingtu wanzheng), mutual non-aggression (互不侵犯, hu bu qinfan) and non-interference in the internal affairs of other sovereign states (互不干涉内政, hu bu ganshe neizheng) (PRC State Council, June 28, 2014).
Interference includes threats of force, military intervention and seeking forcible regime change, all of which Russia is doing to Ukraine. China’s refusal to recognize this also undermines a long-held pretense of Chinese diplomacy, which is that the PRC operates according to the “Bandung Spirit,” which derives from the 1955 Bandung conference among Asian and African nations that proclaimed opposition to hegemony, colonialism, racism, imperialism and military aggression (FMPRC, April 22). Nonetheless, this commitment hardly looks credulous given Beijing’s reticence to criticize Russian aggression and acceptance of Putin’s claims that the “special military operation” is aimed at “demilitarization and denazification of Ukraine” (Kremlin, February 24). Moreover, in referring to the conflict as the “Ukraine issue,” Beijing implicitly supports Moscow’s efforts to eradicate Ukraine as a sovereign nation and incorporate it within a revived Russian imperium.
China opposes economic sanctions on Russia, arguing that the restrictions do not solve, but rather, complicate existing problems (FMPRC, April 6). In the official PRC discourse, sanctions are described as a tool of hegemonic states, which only “adds fuel to the fire” (火上浇油, huo shang jiao you) in a crisis, (Huanqiu, August 1, 2017). Recently, China has criticized EU sanctions on Russia, warning that they will generate, lead to the mass influx of migrants and create energy shortages in Europe (Xinhuanet, June 1; July 3). However, at the same time that Beijing derides EU financial actions targeting Russia, the PRC maintains its own (both formal and informal) sanctions on an EU member state – Lithuania, as well as multinational companies that do business with it, as a punitive response to Vilnius’s decision to strengthen its unofficial ties with Taiwan (China Brief, January 28). The PRC’s measures, which are unprecedented in Europe, demonstrate a concerted attempt by Beijing to attenuate the common and free EU market. China’s coercion against Lithuania resembles measures targeting Australia (World Trade Organization [WTO], January 31). Nevertheless, the Lithuania case is more blatant, as Beijing is targeting the world’s largest trading bloc and an economy of 440 million consumers (WTO, March 7; January 31). Furthermore, Beijing’s sanctions targeting Australia were highly selective, ensuring protection of both national and parochial business interests, e.g., China did not ban imports of Australian iron ore on which its industry depends (China Brief, October 4). Still, on Lithuania, Beijing is willing to damage its own interests by pressuring multinational companies to reroute global supply chains to ensure the exclusion of components from this Baltic nation.
China has sought to teach Lithuania a harsh lesson, even though Vilnius has neither violated international law, nor contravened China’s own “core interests” (核心利益, hexin liyi). In addition, Lithuania adheres to a “one China policy.” However, Beijing has been determined to punish the small Baltic country ever since its 2021 decision to allow the opening of a Taiwanese Representative Office in Vilnius . It was ultimately the name of the office – “Taiwanese” (駐立陶宛台灣代表處, zhu Litaowan Taiwan daibiaochu) instead of traditional “Taipei,” which sparked China’s ire, but this hardly implies Lithuanian recognition of Taiwan (FMPRC, November 19, 2021).
Finally, China is calling on other countries, especially members of the EU, including Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) countries, to act independently. In other words, China suggests that European countries condemnations of Russia and their increasing sense of insecurity due to Putin’s assault are not due to their own agency (or feelings) but are rather, the result of the U.S. pressure (China-CEEC Think Tanks Network, April 22). China has even gone so far as to call Central European countries’ positions on the Russia-Ukraine war “emotional” (Global Times, April 19). By way of contrast, Beijing portrays itself as making a sober, independent assessment about the situation in Ukraine. However, official discourse reveals that PRC state media has echoed Russian disinformation and propaganda throughout the war. China also emulates Russia’s pleas for building a new security system in Europe, including use of the Russian notion of the “principle of indivisibility of security” (安全不可分割原则, anquan buke fenge yuanze) that seeks to fundamentally revise the contemporary security order, particularly in Europe (FMPRC, February 4). China has made repeated appeals for the U.S. and its allies to respect Russia’s legitimate security concerns, labels NATO an expansionist “cold war organization” and repeats Russian disinformation that the U.S. operates biological weapons in Ukraine (China Brief, July 17; FMPRC, March 8).
Is Xi’s Diplomacy Facilitating an Alliance Against China?
In recent months, as the PRC more noticeably approaches red lines, Beijing’s international behavior has become increasingly detrimental to its own interests. In short, China is turning its own worst fear, the emergence of an anti-Chinese alliance or bloc, into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Western, mostly U.S., support for Ukraine have not distracted Washington from its focus on China, which from Beijing’s perspective was a potential benefit of a European conflict. On the contrary, China’s refusal to distance itself from a belligerent Russia has set off alarm bells across the West. Leaked U.S. intelligence has highlighted China’s readiness to help Russia materially, mobilizing the West to scrutinize not only the PRC’s narrative but also its actions. The best example is increasing U.S. pressure on China, including warnings about the consequences if Beijing decides to lend material assistance to Moscow. China’s support for Russia was among the main topics during the Sullivan-Yang Jiechi (杨洁篪) and Biden-Xi talks in March (FMPRC, March 14; FMPRC, March 18). Moreover, the Biden administration has largely prolonged the Trump administration’s sanctions and tariffs on China and added new measures seeking to constrain the PRC’s access to advanced technology (Department of Commerce, October 13). Finally, President Biden himself has cast doubt on the U.S.’s longstanding policy of “strategic ambiguity” by repeatedly stating that U.S. forces will defend Taiwan should China invade (Taipei Times, September 20).
The EU has also noticeably hardened its stance on China since Russia launched its all-out invasion of Ukraine in late February. EU officials emulated U.S. pressure (and warnings) to China during the EU-China summit in April. Although the EU officially still treats the PRC simultaneously as a partner, competitor and systemic rival, since the war began, China has been primarily viewed as a rival (European Council, Council of the European Union, April 1). The recent EU Council meeting confirmed the EU’s tougher China stance. Concerns were raised over the China-Russia “no-limits” partnership, the EU’s strategic dependencies on the PRC and human rights (European Council, October 21, October 21). At the same time, the EU and its member states (mostly the Central and Eastern European countries) are strengthening their cooperation with Taiwan. Taiwan was mentioned explicitly in the EU’s Indo-Pacific Strategy (European Commission [EC], September 16, 2021). There has been a continuous exchange of visits between European and Taiwanese delegations (CHOICE, September 15). Finally, the European Parliament has played a pioneering role in reinvigorating Taiwan-Europe ties, including calling for an assessment, public consultation and scoping exercise on a Bilateral Investment Agreement with Taipei (European Parliament [EP], September 15). It is worth recalling that China-EU Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI) remains frozen since the European Parliament’s joint motion in mid-2021 (EP, May 19, 2021).
China is clearly losing Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). China-CEE relations have been backsliding for some time, with the best example being Lithuania’s withdrawal from the 17+1 format (China-Central and Eastern cooperation (中国—中东欧国家合作, Zhongguo — Zhong dongou guojia hezuo)) last year (China Brief, August 12). Beijing’s support for Russia, which is the largest and most imminent hard security threat for CEE countries – made the region even more suspicious and hawkish towards China. On August 11, Latvia and Estonia left the CEE format, while Czechia is almost ready to quit, waiting only for a good political momentum to do so (Ministry of Foreign, Republic of Latvia, August 11; Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Republic of Estonia, August 11; CHOICE, July 28). For Poland, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s tacit backing of Russia, are the main issues in Warsaw’s interactions with Beijing (president.pl, July 29). The growing alignment with totalitarian Russia indicates that Beijing has already become a security threat for the CEE – a notion so far reserved for Russia, while China was previously seen largely as a long-term challenge or competitor solely in economic domain.
The regional environment in Asia is also becoming increasingly unfriendly for China. Countries that have long sought to hedge between the U.S./West and China are becoming China-skeptical and enhancing their ties with the U.S. and the EU. The best example is Japan, which has been a leader among Asian countries in imposing sanctions on Russia (Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet, June 9). Another significant change is shifting Taiwanese national security perceptions. Despite being a long-term target of PRC economic coercion, Taiwanese public opinion has always been skeptical that Beijing would ever green-light a full-scale invasion (China Brief, July 1). However, the Russian assault on Ukraine has begun to shift this perception. For example, in an opinion poll conducted in July, 61.8 percent of Taiwanese perceived that the threat from China has recently increased (Taiwanese Public Opinion Poll [TPOP], July 19). In that sense, a war in the Taiwan Strait is no longer unimaginable. Opinion polls conducted before and after U.S. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and the PRC’s subsequent military exercises around the island indicate that in February about 63 percent of Taiwanese assessed that an invasion by the PRC is unlikely, while only about 27 percent deemed it likely. However, recent polls conducted after the onset of the Russia-Ukraine war and Pelosi’s visit, found that almost 40 percent of respondents now say an invasion by the PRC is likely, while about 53 percent still believe it remains unlikely (TPOP, August 16).
Finally, China’s support for Russia in its war on Ukraine may have negative consequences for its image among developing countries. Although Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is de facto neo-colonialism, countries in the Global South have tended to side with China and Russia, based on their mutual frustrations with the West in general and the U.S. in particular. Nevertheless, numerous countries across the Global South are signaling that their relationships with China are not free from concerns and tensions. A very telling example is the eight Pacific Island Countries demurring to sign a regional agreement with Chinese FM Wang Yi during his recent tour of the region (FMPRC, May 30). At the same time, Western countries are becoming more active when it comes to winning hearts and minds across the Global South with initiatives such as the EU’s Global Gateway and Japan’s promise to spend $30 billion over the next three years on development programs in Africa to counter Chinese and Russian inroads (EC, December 1, 2021; MOFA, Japan, August 27).
Is Xi’s Diplomacy Irrational?
What does Xi seek to gain by pursuing such a seemingly counterproductive approach to foreign policy? Here, it is tempting, but incorrect to conclude that Xi is acting irrationally. From his point of view, Xi’s decision to pursue aggressive diplomacy is highly rational, as it serves to safeguard the ruling CCP regime’s grip on power in China.
Xi’s speeches often include the slogan “today’s world is undergoing major changes unseen in a century” (当今世界正经历百年未有之大变局 Dangjin shijie zheng jingli bainian wei you zhi da bianju) (Qiushi, August 27, 2021). However, over time, this phrase has been transformed from its original meaning. Hitherto, the slogan has denoted that the “East is Rising and the West is Declining” (东升西降 dongsheng xi jiang) creating a favorable environment for developing countries, including China, which defines itself as the world’s biggest developing country (中国是世界上最大的发展中国家, Zhongguo shi shijie shang zuida de fa zhan zhong guojia). However, the situation has changed profoundly since Russia launched its full-scale war of aggression against Ukraine, which has forced the world’s two largest authoritarian regimes–China and Russia– into a corner. As Wang Yi said in April: the world today is in danger of being divided as never before (当今世界正前所未有地面临分裂的危险, dangjin shijie zheng qiansuoweiyou di mianlin fenlie de weixian) (FMPRC, April 24). While delivering his report at the 20th CCP Congress, Xi Jinping said that China is facing rapid changes in the international situation, especially external blackmail, containment, blockade, and extreme pressure (面对外部讹诈、遏制、封锁、极限施压, mian dui waibu ezha, ezhi, fengsuo, jixian shi ya) (Xinhuanet, October 25).
Several factors have combined to alert Xi to the possible emergence of an anti-authoritarian bloc. The West, including like-minded Indo-Pacific partners such as Australia and Japan, displayed unexpected unity in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, displaying readiness to pay a painful price for abrupt decoupling from Russia. Moreover, Xi is unnerved by both Biden’s idea to build an alliance of democracies; and the rising global visibility of Taiwan. Consequently, the PRC is increasingly concerned about sustaining its own political regime, especially as Russia is losing the war and Xi is witnessing the mounting domestic problems in the Russian Federation, including rising social discontent. It is well known that since the demise of the Soviet Union and socialist bloc, Chinese leaders have deeply rooted in their minds a post-traumatic syndrome over the disintegration of the socialist bloc at the end of the Cold War. Xi is no exception (Xinhua, October 10, 2019). The decline of Russia, China’s main international friend in maintaining its authoritarian regime, may evoke the trauma of the collapse of the socialist bloc. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent, extensive Western condemnation of Russia and growing pressure on China, more open and aggressive anti-Western, anti-NATO and anti-democratic slogans are noticeable in Chinese official discourse. The best example is a deluge of “cold war mentality” slogans (冷战思维, lengzhan siwei) and arguments of already existing NATO’s involvement in Asia-Pacific (北约也在频繁介入亚太事务, beiyue ye zai pinfan jieru yatai shiwu), which assert that the U.S. is orchestrating the return of zero-sum power politics to the region (FMPRC, May 6). The CCP leadership’s pretensions that the real threats are from the West are also useful to excuse and distract from China’s snowballing domestic economic and social problems.
Despite its rhetoric, Beijing may increasingly see a world composed of competing democratic and authoritarian blocs. Therefore, Xi seeks to counteract what he likely perceives as growing pressure from the U.S.-led democratic bloc. One way that China has sought to ameliorate this predicament is by intensifying its outreach to developing countries. In April, Xi proposed the Global Security Initiative (全球安全倡议,Quanqiu anquan changyi ), which seeks to appeal to developing countries by applying a “holistic security” framework that goes beyond purportedly narrow Western security concepts (更是对西方地缘政治安全理论的扬弃超越,geng shi dui xifang diyuan zhengzhi anquan lilun de yangqi chaoyue) (China Brief, May 13; FMPRC, April 24). This initiative was announced at the Boao Forum and has been promoted extensively in PRC leaders’ meetings with developing countries, including in forums such as BRICS or Shanghai Cooperation Organization (FMPRC, September 16; FMPRC, June 23). This is also the reason why in China-Russia encounters, two central topics in Chinese readouts are always emphasizing mutual support for core interests (中方愿同俄方在涉及彼此核心利益问题上相互有力支持, zhongfang yuan tong e fang zai sheji bici hexin liyi wenti shang xiang hu youli zhichi) and promoting cooperation with developing and emerging countries or markets (维护广大发展中国家和新兴市场国家共同利益, weihu guangda fazhan zhong guojia he xinxing shichang guojia gongtong liyi) (FMPRC, September 15).
Concerns about regime survival due to consolidation of the Western democratic bloc and its growing pressure on Russia and China (as well as the PRC’s domestic problems) are the primary reasons why Beijing’s adoption of a more accommodating diplomatic posture during Xi’s third-term is unlikely. Instead, Xi will likely continue a tough approach toward the West and will be focusing more on the developing countries in order to solidify and expand the “southern” block. This two-fold diplomacy—hardness toward the West and softness toward the South —may create additional global tensions that intensify the growing rivalry between the democratic West and China/Russia in the Global South. The outcome of this competition may determine whether China is able to modify the existing global order according to its needs and national interests or is compelled to focus on building a parallel international system.
Justyna Szczudlik is Deputy Head of Research, and a China analyst with the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), as well as former Head of the Asia-Pacific Program (2016-2021). Dr. Szczudlik holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Warsaw (2015), an MA in Chinese Studies from the University of Warsaw (2008) and an MA in Political Science from the University of Wroclaw (2002). She studied Chinese language at the College of Advanced Chinese Training, Beijing Language and Culture University (2005-2006), Beijing and at the National Cheng-chi University in Taipei (2013). Her research focuses on China’s foreign policy, especially China-Central and Eastern Europe relations including China-Poland relations, as well as Cross-Strait relations.