Ukraine is an important BRI partner of China and a gateway to Europe. Ukraine enjoys about $16 billion in trade with China. China has a very close military, space and technological cooperation with Ukraine.
In early February, while the Russian troops build-up continued along the Ukrainian border, President Vladimir Putin found time to participate in the inaugural ceremony of the Winter Olympics, largely boycotted by the West diplomatically. Though the Russian and Chinese media rebuffed the western “rhetoric” of an imminent invasion, Putin, in fact, was seeking assurances from China as regards prospective punitive sanctions and its neutrality in event of the Russian assault. These were mirrored in a nearly 6,000-word Joint Statement that according to Valdai, Alexey Maslov, director of the Moscow State University’s Asia and Africa Institute “formalised bilateral alliance” in an interview to Tass. The nationalistic Global Times of China called it “a new era of international relations not defined by the US.” No wonder, the joint-statement “firmly supports each other’s core interests, national sovereignty and territorial integrity” and “opposes external forces undermining the security and stability of the two countries.” The two sides also signed 15 agreements including the much-talked about gas deal that says Russia will deliver 10 billion cubic meters of gas per year to China over a period of 25 years. It appears that not only was the invasion of Ukraine put on hold until the close of the Winter Olympics, but Beijing also passed information about the US seeking Chinese help to avoid Ukraine being invaded by Russia, according to a story filed by the South China Morning Post.
However, the Russian assault, which contrary to be limited to the breakaway Luhansk and Donetsk regions, sprawls into various cities of Ukraine including the capital Kyiv, has bewildered many, perhaps China too. China pronounced Russia’s security concerns as “legitimate demands” (正当诉求), but, Foreign Minister Wang Yi also said that “China always respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries.” Rebuffing NATO expansion in Russia’s backyard, Wang reiterated China position that “the Cold War mentality should be completely abandoned, and a balanced, effective and sustainable European security mechanism should be finally formed through dialogue and negotiation.” Two days later on 25 February, Wang put forth a five-point Chinese stand, while talking to representatives from the UK, EU and France. The Chinese stand, besides reiterating the above two points, called on the parties to “exercise restraint” (保持必要克制), that it supports all diplomatic efforts (外交努力), “direct dialogue and negotiations” (直接对话谈判), and opposes the UN authorising the use of force and sanctions (授权动武和制裁) under Chapter VII. On 1 March, during his talks with the Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, Wang Yi, mostly reiterated the Chinese position, but added that “regional security cannot be achieved by expanding military blocs” (地区安全不能以扩张军事集团来实现) and that both sides urgently need to de-escalate the situation on the ground. Undoubtedly, the Ukrainian crisis will further push Russia closer to China. The crisis seems to have thrown more challenges than opportunities to the Chinese diplomacy, and it would be interesting to watch how China navigates through these, especially at a time when its image has taken a beating around the globe.
At the outset, the Ukrainian crisis will take focus off China and the Indo-Pacific for some time. Needless to say, any conflict involving the US and its allies have immensely benefitted China, be it the US invasion of Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Afghanistan etc. countries. The breathing space China got in the last three decades or so has been instrumental in economic, technological and defense modernization of China. It also provides China an opportunity to provide economic and military aid to its detractors’ enemies, at the same time to play the role of a mediator in the conflict, as has been witnessed in the case of North Korea, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran etc., countries.
Second, Russian involvement in military conflicts, and the West slapping sanctions on Russia could further strengthen the transactional Russia-China relationship, and the same could well become China’s burden. China could offer its Cross-Border Interbank Payment System (CISP) to Russia in place of SWIFT, but will Chinese banks take the risk of inviting the US and EU sanctions? China may not be willing to take the risk of losing US and European markets. The Ukrainian crisis has united NATO members unprecedentedly since the end of the cold war, and China and Russia driving a wedge between the US and its allies that looked possible at one point in time, may be a remote possibility in wake of Russia’s troubled relationship with Europe and the US. In case the war drags on, which looks possible, given the kind of information and weaponry the West has and continues to share with Ukraine, it will be Putin’s nightmare and the war may take a different turn altogether, as could China’s murky position, and its ability to take leverage from both the US and Russia.
Third, the reaction of the US, and its allies in the wake of the Russian assault, certainly has ruffled feathers in the power corridors of Zhongnanhai. “Today Ukraine, tomorrow Taiwan” became the most trending line in the last couple of days on both sides of the Taiwan straits. Since Russia adheres to the “One China Policy” and advocates Taiwan’s unification with the Mainland, Taiwanese President Tsai ing-wen was quick to “condemn Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty” and joined the West to sanction Russia. While talking about the takeaways from the Ukrainian crisis, Zhu Lilun, Chairman of the Kuomintang, posits that “Only a solid national defense and determination of the whole nation to defend the country will always be the most important foundation for national security.” While the US and its allies are likely to export the Ukrainian model of intervention and assistance, Taiwan further ramping up its defense preparedness looks certain. Moreover, if Ukraine being a distant core interest of the US has been getting full military and intelligence support from NATO members, importance of Taiwan to the US and its allies in Indo-Pacific will be very different from what the international community has witnessed in Ukraine. Moreover, Russia putting its nuclear deterrent force on high alert, and Belarus asking for the deployment of nukes on its soil, will force Japan and other countries either to develop their own or ask for similar deployments.
Fourth, Ukraine is an important BRI partner of China and a gateway to Europe. Ukraine enjoys about $16 billion in trade with China, which is one-tenth of China’s trade with Russia. Besides, China has a very close military, space and technological cooperation with Ukraine. According to Yurii Poita, head of the Asia-Pacific section at Centre for Army, Conversion and Disarmament Studies (CACDS), Ukraine, “in defence sector, some of the most famous bilateral projects include the Ukrainian aircraft-carrier Varyag purchased by China in 1998, which was later upgraded and introduced into the PLA Navy under the name Liaoning; the acquisition of UGT 25000 gas turbine engines along with full technical documentation, which became the basis for QC 280 gas turbines, were delivered to the new Type 055 destroyers; amphibious Bison air-cushioned landing crafts, specifically built for China, which it requires for any landing operation on the islands in the East and South China Sea.” Since the direction of Ukraine’s foreign policy since 2014 has been EU and NATO centric, the same has created certain uneasiness in Ukraine-China relations owing to the latter’s backing of Russia. In such a situation, “Ukraine did draw several ‘red lines’ in its cooperation with China, leaving the trade and investment sphere open, but not allowing China into sensitive sectors, including elements of critical infrastructure, cybersecurity, 5G networks, etc.,” according to Yurii. There are reports that overseas Chinese in Ukraine are increasingly being despised for China’s Russia policy, and also owing to certain irresponsible and predatory posts appearing on Chinese social media on Ukrainian people amidst the crisis.
Fifth, India too has been caught between a rock and a hard place. On 26 February, India joined China and the UAE in abstaining during a vote on a US sponsored UNSC resolution that deplored in the strongest terms Russia’s aggression on Ukraine. Indian students who are leaving Ukraine and congregating at the borders, are facing the wrath of the Ukrainian army and police. India has been balancing its economic and political relations with the US, Russia and Ukraine. However, in the wake of the ongoing war, unfolding punitive sanctions, including the expulsion of Russia out of SWIFT, India’s foreign policy is set for a litmus test. It has to be seen how India navigates these sanctions, and restructures its ties with the US, EU and Ukraine vis-à-vis India wanting to see itself as part of the new equilibrium in international order. Pakistan Prime Minister’s presence in Moscow amidst Russian onslaught, does point to an emerging China-Russia-Pakistan nexus and India’s vulnerabilities, but India perhaps will need to make hard choices given the emerging equations, especially when it comes to diversification of defense procurements.
Finally, it has to be seen how China bets on its “no limit” relationship with Russia, economic partnership and uneasy political relationship with Ukraine, its $1.6 trillion-dollar market in the US and Europe, and how it orbits the US and EU sanctions on Russia. The Ukrainian crisis appears to have thrown more challenges to China than opportunities. These are likely to exacerbate if the conflict prolongs and Russia is weakened. Nevertheless, by way of redefining the messed up red lines by Russia, the US and EU could also redefine the nature of geopolitics, choices faced by all the stakeholders.
B.R. Deepak is Professor, Center of Chinese and Southeast Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.