China did not expect a protracted and bloody war in Ukraine, which is causing global upheaval and thus major problems for Beijing's interests. There are growing signs that the Chinese government's policy of "strategic neutrality" is reaching its limit.
KYIV — China's neutral stance on the war in Ukraine looks to many like tacit support for Russia's behavior. Before the invasion and in its early days, statements by the Chinese Foreign Ministry contained pro-Russian hints about NATO as a vestige of the Cold War, “indivisibility of security,” “understanding of Russia’s legitimate concerns about its security,” and non-acceptance of the “unilateral use of sanctions” by Western countries.
However, a certain distance from the situation remained in other statements (“respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all countries”) and attempts were made to avoid political or economic involvement (a call to resolve the “conflict” by dialogue and negotiations).
China's neutrality provides it with a potential role as the key mediator in the Russian-Ukrainian war. Many countries around the world turned to China in the hope it could sway Russia to soften its position. However, the prestigious image of a peacemaker that would show China's influence in the international arena remains less important for the country than achieving its own political goals of reuniting with Taiwan and ousting the U.S. from East Asia.
And yet, Beijing's official rhetoric is gradually taking on new undertones.
Beijing's new "humanitarian" rhetoric
The press conference Monday by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was chiefly focused on the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, calls to ensure the protection of civilians, and proposals to help through both the Chinese Red Cross or the United Nations.
However, China avoided blaming the Russian armed forces for the humanitarian catastrophe, which makes its statements declarative. During a video conference Tuesday with the leaders of France and Germany, Chinese President Xi Jinping noted his readiness to play an active role in preventing further escalation of tensions on the European continent.
What irritates China most of all are the ongoing cascading sanctions against Russia for starting the war. Sanctions will only cause serious hardships to the economies and livelihoods of the countries concerned and will further aggravate division and confrontation.
An earlier statement by the Chinese Foreign Ministry said: “We demand that the parties concerned do not undermine the legitimate rights and interests of China and other parties in resolving the issue of Ukraine and relations with Russia. China and Russia will continue trade cooperation with mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit.”
The global rise in the cost of all raw materials will significantly affect the terms of Chinese trade, which increases the prime cost of Chinese final products. Global aggregate demand will certainly decrease, leading to a slowdown in Chinese exports. All these disasters can negatively affect Chinese society, cause unemployment, discontent and protests, which is unacceptable for the Chinese authorities.
Chinese experts are aware that mutual understanding with Washington and Brussels is more important for the successful further modernization of the country than support for a compromised Moscow. Resource-rich Russia's economy remains weak to ensure sufficient demand for Chinese products.
Chinese analysts significantly overestimate the resistance of the Russian economy to the imposed sanctions, which leads them to false conclusions about the need to support the actions of the aggressor.
Despite certain preventive actions taken by the Russian authorities to protect the financial system, the new Western sanctions will directly hit the well-being of ordinary Russians, as well as limiting the quality of their consumption and the security of earnings. Given the unbalanced distribution of income among the population of the country, the effect of the sanctions will be very harsh and tangible in the coming months. The closure of Russian sales markets will contribute to the reduction, rather than strengthening, of trade relations between China and the Russian Federation.
There is a situation of a vicious circle.
Protecting themselves from sanctions, Russian companies have been opening accounts in Chinese banks and converting their contracts into yuan. Indeed, the internationalization of the Chinese currency, which the Chinese authorities have been striving for so long, will receive a temporary boost. In Chinese social networks, “small-scale consultants” of Russian business have increased their activities. They offer schemes for the supply of Western goods to Russia through Chinese firms.
It is possible that China's trade positions will strengthen to some extent, but it is obvious that Russia will not be able to replace its Western partners in terms of either quantity or quality. The same applies to Russia. The strategic sectors of the Russian economy will not survive without Western technologies and components. There is a situation of a vicious circle, when the economic interdependence of China and Russia will act against the interests of both countries.
Putin and Xi during October's virtual G20 summit
Evgeniy Paulin/Kremlin Pool/Planet Pix via ZUMA
Food supply chains
Increasing threats to China's food security will be another incentive for China to specify its peacekeeping position on the war in Ukraine. The war will destroy food supply chains around the world, which is why the country has already lifted restrictions on the purchase of wheat from all over Russia.
For the past few years, Ukraine has been supplying the Chinese food market with corn, barley and sunflower oil. Recently, at the National Committee of the People's Political Consultative Council, Chinese President Xi Jinping said, "The bowls of the Chinese people should be filled with rice."
The war will destroy food supply chains around the world.
Some expect that it is food security that will encourage Chinese diplomats to actively engage in the solution to the Ukrainian issue. As a result of the previous global food shortage in 2010-2011, when China also resorted to a policy of securitization of its own food security, food prices skyrocketed in developing countries, causing outrage among residents and culminating in the Arab Spring.
Beijing, which today positions itself as a defender of the interests of developing countries, is clearly losing its image in this group of countries from rising food prices.
How the world can persuade Xi
Close partnerships with Russia, which during the war destroys Ukrainian cities and commits genocide of civilians, will cause further reputational losses for China and among developed countries. No matter how China disguises its unwillingness to put pressure on Putin in official rhetoric, no matter how it uses diplomatic maneuvers to maintain “strategic neutrality,” it will become increasingly difficult for China to avoid specifying its position on Ukraine.
Having made great efforts to improve its image, coming up with numerous global initiatives, China will not be able to cross out all its successes to support Russia. In our opinion, the threat of losing a positive image is the lever that the world community should use to convince China to become more active.
China is interested in ending the war in Ukraine as soon as possible and restoring the global world order, primarily for the sake of its national stability and prospects. The position of "a wise monkey watching the battle of tigers from a tree" in the context of a bloody conflict in Europe is unacceptable. China is already beginning to understand this.
Vita Golod is Head of the Board of the Ukrainian Association of Sinologists.
Dmytro Yefremov is a board member of the Ukrainian Association of Sinologists.
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