February 23, 2022 | Policy Brief

Beijing’s Ukraine Balancing Act Reveals Exploitable Fissures in the Sino-Russian Partnership

February 23, 2022 | Policy Brief

Beijing’s Ukraine Balancing Act Reveals Exploitable Fissures in the Sino-Russian Partnership

Over the weekend, Beijing distanced itself from Russian aggression against Ukraine, calling for the “sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of all countries” to be “respected and safeguarded.” China’s mixed messaging on Ukraine suggests Beijing seeks to demonstrate support for Moscow without needlessly inflaming tensions with the West, which could provide Washington and Brussels with an opening to weaken Sino-Russian ties.

In recent weeks, Beijing has made contradictory declarations concerning current hostilities in Europe. In a joint statement issued after an early February summit between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin, Beijing appeared supportive, at least generally, of Russia’s grievances against NATO. The statement said China “is sympathetic to and supports” Moscow’s demands for an end to NATO enlargement, which both countries see as a reflection of the alliance’s “Cold War-era” mentality. However, Beijing’s own summit readout avoided mentioning Ukraine or NATO, focusing instead on economic collaboration with Russia.

As Russia’s planned invasion came into sharper focus following the summit, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed that territorial integrity is a “basic norm of international relations that embodies the purposes of the UN Charter. It is also the consistent, principled position of China. And that applies equally to Ukraine.”

Nevertheless, Beijing walked a fine line during an emergency UN Security Council meeting held hours after Putin recognized the Russian-controlled separatist republics in eastern Ukraine and ordered Russian troops to launch “peacekeeping operations” there. China’s United Nations ambassador refrained from mentioning Russia’s invasion, instead calling on “all parties concerned” to “exercise restraint” and pursue a diplomatic resolution. Beijing has declined to recognize the breakaway republics, echoing China’s decision not to recognize Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

China’s ambivalent messaging reflects a complicated balancing act. On the one hand, Beijing has tacitly backed Putin’s attempts to undermine the U.S.-led international order, a goal that China and Russia have long shared. Beijing also benefits from the Ukraine crisis’ diversion of U.S. attention and resources toward Europe and away from competition with China in the Indo-Pacific.

Separately, Beijing seeks to avoid exacerbating its already fraught relationships with Washington and Brussels, particularly given China’s reliance on Western capital and technology to sustain its development. As China confronts an economic slowdown that Chinese leaders fear could cause domestic instability, Beijing also hopes to minimize any potential disruptions to its relationship with Europe, a top Chinese trading partner.

Beijing’s stated support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity is also consistent with China’s long-held rhetorical opposition to interference in the internal affairs of other countries. But Beijing’s refusal to recognize the breakaway republics reflects more its desire to avoid similar comparisons involving Taiwan or Tibet.

Going forward, Beijing will continue blaming Washington and its allies for provoking Russia while simultaneously calling for a diplomatic resolution. Expected worldwide economic disruptions following a Russian invasion, including shocks to energy and commodity markets upon which China depends to meet surging demand, will test the Sino-Russian partnership. A sustained global economic downturn could also undermine China’s ability to achieve its growth targets.

Washington and Brussels should seek to play on the divergence in Russian and Chinese interests by openly rebuking China for interfering in NATO affairs and supporting Russian adventurism. Warnings could include plans to target China’s economic interests in Europe unless Beijing dials back support for Moscow. Western governments should also threaten action against Chinese entities that flout Western sanctions against Russia or otherwise bolster Russia’s economy while Russian troops participate in an invasion of undisputed Ukrainian territory. Washington should also monitor Sino-Russian efforts to deepen non-dollar-denominated trade ties.

These and other efforts could expose cracks in the China-Russia partnership and undercut Beijing’s influence throughout Europe.

Craig Singleton, a national security expert and former U.S. diplomat, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), where he contributes to FDD’s China Program. For more analysis from Craig and the China Program, please subscribe HERE. Follow Craig on Twitter @CraigMSingleton. Follow FDD on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.


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