China’s Strategic Interests in the Context of the Russia-Ukraine War
Since the Russia-Ukraine crisis escalated into a war, it has fast become a geopolitical event that carries huge impact on the world, and that itself is a rare occurrence in recent years. Although Russia’s war on Ukraine is yet to be over, and the latest information shows that Ukraine and Russia have agreed to negotiate on the Belarusian border, yet regardless of the outcome it will significantly change the geopolitical landscape of the world.
The two sides in this war are Russia and Ukraine, but the actual confrontation is between Russia and the Western world. Whether or not Russia can take Ukraine, it will suffer its biggest defeat in international politics and diplomacy since the end of the Cold War, as pointed out by researchers at ANBOUND. Judging from the battlefield situation so far, within the conventionally limited war framework, it is increasingly unlikely that Russia is able to obtain the desired geopolitical benefits at a lesser cost. With the United States and Europe jointly imposing comprehensive sanctions on Russia, and European countries reaching an agreement to provide arms support to Ukraine, especially with a huge change in Germany’s stance, the situation is progressively becoming unfavorable for Russia.
China is not a participant in this war, yet it cannot be isolated from the effects. The changes in global geopolitical pattern in the wake of the Russia-Ukraine war will have a profound impact on China’s future development environment.
In China’s cyberspace, the war is a controversial issue, and Chinese netizens can be divided into three factions, each taking a particular position:
The first faction is the pro-Russia. Those belonged to this faction support Russia’s attack on Ukraine and believe that it is a just war for Russia to resist NATO’s eastward expansion, seeing it as a geopolitical struggle based on Russia’s own interests. Such view agrees with those of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and at the same time showing strong anti-American sentiments, holding that the U.S. is the “culprit” that triggered the war and the biggest beneficiary of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. It considers Russia and China have significant mutual strategic interests, and even thinks that if any of the two countries falls, the other would follow suit. Therefore, according to those who support this view, China should stand firmly on Russia’s side, and join Russia against the U.S. or Europe. Our preliminary observation appears to reveal that those who hold such view are the majority in China’s cyberspace.
The second faction is the pro-Ukraine. Its supporters believe that Russia’s war actions have violated Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, and caused huge loss of life and property, leading to the displacement of a large number of innocent people. Regardless of the motives for the war, Russia’s aggressive actions should be condemned. Some of those in this faction agree with Western sanctions and assaults on Russia. This view is not supported by China’s official public opinion, and it is a minority faction in the country.
The third faction takes the neutral stance, and is also known as the “rational pacifist faction”. It believes that both sides of the war have their own problems and responsibilities, and the war broke out due to the development of international geopolitical circumstance. Notwithstanding the interests and reasons of both parties, the war should end as soon as possible and disputes should be settled through peaceful negotiations. Peace should be the biggest goal for all parties. The neutralists also believe that in this incident, China should not take sides lightly, instead it should consider its own interests as the starting point and view the matter based on global justice and humanitarianism. From the perspective of online public opinion, the views of this third faction are the rarest. When it comes to promoting negotiations and pursuing peace, it shares the closest view with that of China’s central government.
With 1.4 billion people in China, it is normal to see different opinions in the cyberspace. Researchers at ANBOUND believe that behind the above controversy actually raises an important public policy question, i.e., how should China view its own strategic interests in the face of the Russia-Ukraine war and its geopolitical implications? How should policy options be made based on China’s best interests?
The official view of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs concerning the Russia-Ukraine war is that, first of all, the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries should be respected and maintained, and the purposes and principles of the UN Charter should also be jointly safeguarded. This is what China has always been pursuing. The principle is also the basic norm of international relations that all countries should uphold. Secondly, the Ukrainian issue has its complex and unique history, and China understands Russia’s concerns on security issues. Thirdly, China advocates that the Cold War mentality should be completely discarded, instead a balanced, effective and sustainable European security mechanism should be finally formed through dialogues and negotiations. Fourthly, China decides its own position and policy according to the merits of the matter itself, and has always stood on the side of peace and justice.
On the afternoon of February 25, Chinese President Xi Jinping pointed out in a telephone conversation with Putin that China determines its position based on the merits of the issue itself. Xi expressed that it is necessary to abandon Cold War mentality, attach importance to and respect the legitimate security concerns of all countries, and form a balanced, effective and sustainable European security mechanism through negotiations. He also stated that China supports Russia and Ukraine to resolve the issue through negotiations, and that China’s basic position on respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries and abiding by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter is consistent. He pointed out that China is willing to work with all parties in the international community to advocate a common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security concept, and firmly safeguard the international system with the UN. This is a strong signal sent by the Chinese side to promote negotiations between Russia and Ukraine to ultimately achieve peace.
China supported the resolution by abstaining from voting on the draft resolution of the United Nations Security Council on the current situation in Ukraine on February 25. Zhang Jun, China’s UN ambassador envoy, said in his explanatory remarks that China does not want to see the situation in Ukraine develop to the current stage. China, according to Zhang, has always decided its own position based on the merits of the matter, and that it advocates respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries. He stressed that all parties will need to seek a reasonable solution to each other’s concerns through peaceful means on the basis of equality and mutual respect, and that China welcomes and encourages all efforts to promote a diplomatic solution for Russia and Ukraine to resolve the issue through negotiations.
From the above series of statements, it can be seen that China has a clear and consistent view, that is, taking into account the overall situation and acting in accordance with the UN principles. This means to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, while relying on diplomatic negotiations, and adopting non-war approaches to achieve peace. Obviously, the Chinese decision-makers are not confused on the Russia-Ukraine issue. They do not “choose sides” as suggested by certain Chinese netizens, but instead uphold the constructive stance as a responsible country.
China is a huge country with extremely complex geopolitical and economic interests. Its foreign policy should ultimately serve its own development, which is to commit in seeking greater welfare for the 1.4 billion Chinese people, and contribute to the entire humankind as a community of shared future. Therefore, its diplomatic relations cannot be tied to a certain country, neither with the United States nor with Russia. This is also an important principle for China’s long-standing adherence to non-alignment.
There are those who believe that the U.S. has adjusted its strategy towards China in recent years, listing the latter as a long-term strategic competitor. Furthermore, in recent years the U.S. has also cooperated with other Western countries to “contain” China in various ways and promote a comprehensive decoupling from China. Under such circumstance, question these people, why did China not form an alliance with Russia against the U.S.? We believe that this view actually falls into the trap of “choosing sides” and fails to fully recognize China’s strategic interests.
ANBOUND’s researchers believe that any analysis on China’s strategic choices should be based on the perspective of its strategic interests from the angle of historical realism. When the world was still in the midst of the Cold War, China chose reform and opening-up. It subsequently learned from the Western market economy, while combining such experience with its own socialism, and took advantage of the general trend of globalization to introduce foreign capital, technology and knowledge to the country. Under such development, it has become part of the global market. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Warsaw Pact was broken, and along with it the socialist camp disintegrated, only China’s socialist market economy achieved success. It is clear that historical reality indicates its economic achievements today are inseparable from its opening to developed countries.
Looking at China’s strategic interests from a global perspective, its economic interests are mainly associated with developed capitalist countries. On the other hand, its current geopolitical interests are in common with Russia in the sense that both face common external pressures, in which there is strategic competition and conflict with the U.S. With the separation of both economic and geopolitical interests, this determines that China needs to have a unique view of strategic interests. Meanwhile, although Russia has inherited the Soviet Union’s military power and nuclear deterrence capabilities, its economic scale is only equivalent to China’s Guangdong Province. Obviously, China’s future strategic interests cannot be tied to Russia.
Another question that arises is that if China’s strategic interests should be tied to that of the U.S. As things stand, this is an overly simplified question. With the U.S. adjusting its strategy towards China, the confrontation between the two nations will be one that is strategic, systematic and long-term. The mitigation of this will have to be tactical, partial, and phased. Under this basic understanding, China should continue the strategic choice that has been proven correct in the past. Although the international situation has changed, which has now proven to be not possible for it to fully enjoy the dividends of globalization as in the past, China should continue adhering to integrating with global economy, politics, technology, and culture. To put it bluntly, the U.S. has always hoped to fully decouple from it, but China must resist this “decoupling delusion”.
In addition, China and Europe have significant interests that are different from those with the U.S. The interests of China and Europe are not only reflected in economics, but also in geopolitics. The EU has long been China’s largest trading partner, and only dropped to second largest in the past two years. It too, remains an important source of technology for China. In recent years, the competition and division of interests between the U.S. and Europe have been on the rise, which is beneficial for China to build its own interest pattern. However, the Russia-Ukraine war will temporarily reverse the trend of increasing differences between the U.S. and Europe. Based on the geo-security concerns of returning to the Cold War, the United States will collaborate with Europe against Russia and strengthen the transatlantic alliance to a certain extent. In this regard, China needs to view China-EU interests and the choice of strategies from an independent perspective.
It is our opinion that regardless how the Russia-Ukraine war ends, the world will form a phased “anti-Russian alliance”, and long-term and comprehensive sanctions are likely to significantly weaken Russia’s economic and political status in the world. When this happens, China’s identity, attitude and strategy to get along with the world will become more prominent. Each country has its own unique interests. In dealing with shifts in international geopolitics, the basic starting point is to make independent strategic choices based on a country’s own interests. For this reason, for China to maintain its independent status, it cannot choose sides. Those who believe that the U.S. would target China after it is done with Russia fail to understand global geopolitical interests. If China’s development is both beneficial to its own interests and what the world needs, there is no need for it to worry about being completely ostracized by certain geopolitical bloc.
Final analysis conclusion:
China should insist on the realization of peace in Ukraine. The “power for peace” will definitely become a major force, and it too will become the final victor. No war will last forever; both Russia and Ukraine will need peace ultimately. As a positive force in the world, if it has to choose a side, China must stand on the side of the final victor, and stand on the side that conforms to the historical trend. This is the choice that it should make. It is only by insisting on peace that will allow China to show its strength and gain cognition from the world.
Writer by He Jun
Partner, Director of China Macro-Economic Research Team and Senior Researcher. His research field covers China’s macro-economy, energy industry and public policy.
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