China’s communist leaders face the dilemma of supporting a quasi-ally in backing Russian military operation against Ukraine while avoiding a collapse of Beijing’s declared policy of respecting sovereignty and never interfering in the internal affairs of other states.
A joint China-Russia statement issued in Beijing earlier this month came close to China’s open support for Russian action against Ukraine, without mentioning Ukraine.
“The Chinese side is sympathetic to and supports the proposals put forward by the Russian Federation to create long-term legally binding security guarantees in Europe,” the statement said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on Monday he was recognizing two regions of eastern Ukraine as separate Russian states, stating that Moscow’s demands for security guarantees in December were ignored.
In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin on Monday backed Russia’s demand for an end to NATO expansion and noted the joint statement issued after the Feb. 4 meeting between Mr. Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. But Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told the Munich Security Conference over the weekend that China favors continued independence for Ukraine, a major trade and investment partner for Beijing, and respect for sovereignty, and territorial integrity.
“This is a basic norm of international relations that embodies the purposes of the U.N. Charter. It is also the consistent, principled position of China, and that applies equally to Ukraine,” the foreign minister said.
The minister stopped short of calling for a peaceful resolution of the crisis but said all parties should pursue dialogue and consultation for safeguarding European security.
Mr. Wang Wenbin, the spokesman, criticized “relevant sides” – a veiled reference to the United States and Western nations opposing Russia – should discard “the Cold War mentality.”
Chinese Communist Party leaders in the seven-member Standing Committee of the Politburo dropped out of sight in recent days and are debating how far to go in backing Russian action against Ukraine, the Wall Street Journal reported, quoting people close to the leadership.
Mr. Xi, facing his own economic problems at home, told French President Emmanuel Macron earlier this month that he supports the use of dialogue in solving the crisis but did not back off his alignment with Russia in opposing NATO expansion.
Clash of principles
China’s foreign policy is said to be based on principles of peaceful co-existence that include not supporting any country’s aggression or intervention in other nations’ internal affairs.
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Chinese leaders fear overt support for an invasion of Ukraine will further alienate Europe, hamper trade ties and hinder China’s drive to become the dominant global power.
Given the conflicting pressures, U.S. government and private security analysts say direct Chinese support for Russia is not likely. Beijing instead will most likely provide unannounced backing for Russia through indirect cooperation that could tie down American military forces near Taiwan, Japan and the South China Sea.
If Russian military forces cross into Ukraine, as predicted by U.S. intelligence agencies, Moscow will be forced to place military forces in the Far East on heightened alert in anticipation that U.S. air and naval forces will deploy closer to the vulnerable region. That in turn could lead to Russian military forces in Asia to grow more confrontational toward U.S. forces in the Pacific theater.
China’s indirect support for Moscow would then play out in stepped up military activities – warship and warplane operations by the People’s Liberation Army near Taiwan, Japan and the South China Sea. The Chinese objective would be to make it more difficult for limited U.S. military forces in the Pacific to operate freely against Russia.
China’s aggressive propaganda network also is not expected to come out in support of Russian military operations against Ukraine, but will focus instead of criticizing the U.S. and its allies for stoking the crisis.
From a strategic standpoint, China will seek to prevent international debate on the Russia-Ukraine crisis so that China will not be forced to pick a side.
Ukraine in the past has engaged in arms and military technology deals with China. Past weapons transfers included an unfinished aircraft carrier that became China’s Liaoning and large air-cushioned landing craft that are being reverse-engineered by the Chinese and engines for bombers. China also hired hundreds of Ukrainian weapons experts to assist the PLA’s military modernization program that includes a large and expanding nuclear force.
Kyiv also is part of China’s multi-trillion dollar infrastructure development plan called the Belt and Road Initiative.
Western sanctions imposed on Russia will hurt Russia’s already weak economy and that too is expected to see China come to the aid of Russian President Vladimir Putin by providing support for the economy. China’s economy is many times larger than Russia’s economy and an invasion of Ukraine could lead to greater Beijing influence and control over Russia.
John J. Tkacik, a former State Department official, said China will make no attempt to hide its support for Mr. Putin and doubts the Ukraine crisis will hurt closer Moscow-Beijing ties.
“There is no attempt by China to ride a middle ground. It is a charade which China‘s propaganda organs spread among foreign correspondents in China for laughs. It’s disinformation that always works because Western politicians and audiences desperately want to believe it,” Mr. Tkacik said.
Mr. Xi backed Mr. Putin’s 2014 takeover of Ukraine’s Crimea and later destabilization of eastern Ukraine – contrary to an official Chinese government declaration of support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
“China fully supports Putin’s irredentist strategy toward Ukraine today in 2022, because it closely matches China‘s dubious legal position vis-a-vis Taiwan,” Mr. Tkacik said.
China also can be expected to undercut Western sanctions imposed on Russia and covertly provide Mr. Putin with needed resources.
“Putin is well aware that hitching his wagon to China‘s locomotive puts him and Russia at Beijing‘s strategic mercy,” Mr. Tkacik said. “But he views it as an acceptable risk.”
Dan Blumenthal, a China expert, believes the United States needs to begin preparing now for a possible political-military crisis involving Taiwan.
“While there is much debate in Washington about a bolt-from-the-blue Chinese invasion of Taiwan, Beijing may instead generate a political-military crisis by threatening to use force,” Mr. Blumenthal said in an article in the journal Foreign Policy. “Beijing’s goal is to force Taiwan to meet its political demands — the acceptance of Chinese control over the island — while preventing the United States from standing in the way,” he added.
China does not need to invade Taiwan, at great military cost, and could instead seek a takeover similar to the extinguishing democracy in Hong Kong.
To that end, China could announce adoption of a law that would demand capitulation of the Taiwan government or face the prospect of war.
Mr. Putin followed that model in December issuing a list of security demands, such as limiting Western military deployments and halting NATO expansion.
“Taiwan’s diplomatic isolation makes it uniquely susceptible to a Russia-like campaign of intimidation and coercion,” Mr. Blumenthal said. “If the United States is to help Taiwan maintain its de facto independence, it needs to become a lot more creative — and energetic — about preparing diplomatic, economic, and military responses to China’s designs on the island.”
A government policy analyst said China and Russia have fundamentally different objectives and relations between the two states after an invasion will be a marriage of convenience.
Mr. Putin has been seeking to develop the Far East with more investment and China has agreed to a number of deals in the region. However, China also is aware that a strengthened Russian Far East is likely to be a threat to China over the long term.
Russia is motivated by Mr. Putin’s objective of seeking as much global relevance as possible. China by contrast wants to achieve global dominance.
“Russia and China really don’t see eye to eye,” the analyst said.
Also, Russian military operations against Ukraine may not produce a pacified Ukraine as Moscow’s conventional forces are limited.