Russian Invasion of Ukraine, China and Towards a New Global Order
by Ibrahim Genc, Tuba Yalinkilic, Yunus Erbas
March 11, 2022| 13 min read
- In the Beijing Winter Olympic opening ceremony on February 4, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese State and Party Leader Xi Jinping issued a joint statement of support and affirmed their commitment to “deepening comprehensive strategic cooperation.”
- On the evening of February 23, President Vladimir Putin authorised “a special military operation” in the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine.
- On February 25, President Xi Jinping talked with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the phone, reiterating to reject the “Cold War mentality” and to respect the reasonable security concerns of all countries.
- On February 25, China abstained from voting in favour of a draft resolution over the Ukraine crisis in the UN.
- On February 26, China’s five-point position on the Ukraine issue came out on the official website of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the PRC.
- On March 7, Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at a virtual press conference, “The Red Cross Society of China will provide a batch of emergency humanitarian supplies to Ukraine as soon as possible”.
- On March 8, President Xi Jinping had a virtual summit with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, emphasising that we need to jointly support the peace talks between Russia and Ukraine.
This policy brief analyses China’s stance on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the repercussions of the crisis to cross-strait relations, which is perceived as a possible future conflict, and the status of the Russia-China relationship on a new global order, respectively.
China’s Stance vis-à-vis Russian Invasion
Ukraine has once again made headlines for its escalating conflict with Russia, which has been simmering since 2014, ultimately culminating in a full-scale invasion by Russia on early February 24, 2022.
China is trying to avoid taking a clear side in the deepening crisis. The official Chinese statements concerning the situation in Ukraine seem even much less committed. In a keynote speech at the Munich Security Conference on February 19, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged all parties to “shoulder their responsibilities and work for peace instead of increasing tensions, stoking panic, or hyping up war.”. Once the war broke out, Beijing kept calling for restraint and a peaceful, negotiated solution to the crisis. But it also turned to a more Russia-friendly tone, questioning the word “invasion” to describe the situation and blaming the US and NATO for aggravating the crisis.
In early February, both President Xi Jinping and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, issued a joint statement opposing “the further expansion of NATO” in what both called a “Cold War-era” approach and the trilateral security pact between Australia, the UK, and the US, dubbed as AUKUS, which threaten the security interests of Moscow and Beijing, respectively. However, as the Russian-Ukrainian crisis deteriorated in late February, in which Moscow was on the verge of a large-scale invasion of Ukraine, Chinese officials at the Munich Security Conference and the UN Security Council called for calm, diplomatic dialogue and even respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
In its first public remarks on the issue after Putin’s military operation announcement, the Chinese government has urged all sides to de-escalate tensions in Ukraine. But now that Russia has backed away from all such calls for de-escalation and further, Putin uttered the utilisation of nuclear arms on the table as an option. However, China’s position is as obscure as the beginning, neither only/totally with Ukraine nor with Russia. It respects both Ukraine’s sovereignty as well as Russia’s security concerns.
The logic behind China’s such approaches is indeed laid on its core interest. Firstly, China doesn’t want to be seen explicitly supporting war, particularly in Europe. Such a stand, which backs a country fighting within its neighbour’s borders and targeting civilians, would further damage its global image on the international scene and public opinion. Secondly, China also doesn’t want to cut off strategic ties with Moscow and economic relations with Kyiv. The Russia-China relationship is labelled as a “de facto alliance”. They share common interests over the shape of the global order, pursuing revisionist policies vis-à-vis the existing international system and trying to push back against the US hegemony, even though they have their own interests and motivations. On the other hand, Ukraine is the number one trading partner of China in the region, and Beijing would ideally like to maintain good relations with Kyiv. However, this could be tough to sustain when it is clearly so closely aligned with the government which is sending its troops into Ukrainian territory. In this regard, China is struggling to balance relations with both countries.
There is a risk that Western Europe and the US will retaliate against China in trade if the latter supports Russia’s aggressive actions. In such a case, it is likely that the sanctions against China would not be as easy and unified as against Russia because economic relations are “too big to fail” and much more intertwined, which could be costly for them as well. Besides all, China has a constant principle of its foreign policy that it does not interfere in the internal affairs of others and that other countries should not interfere in its internal affairs. In this regard, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of every country should be safeguarded, “Ukraine is no exception” in his speech concerning the matter. At this point, China is still avoiding direct criticism of Russia on its ‘invasion’ and tries to throw off its contradiction by blaming the US-led alliance’s actions as well as NATO expansionist attitude towards Russia’s borders that had allegedly triggered the war and by underscoring that the security concerns of Russia should be taken into account.
Overall, China’s stance on the crisis has remained broadly unchanged since the beginning, despite its contradictory statements. It certainly doesn’t want to be directly involved in the Russia-Ukraine conflict as in its own core interests, such as Taiwan or its neighbours. Because there’s little for China to win and much to lose. China’s position might be more on Russia’s side unless the US and the EU countries had not taken such serious concerted action against Russia. But China has preferred to pursue a policy of realpolitik by calculating the profit and loss accounts well.
The Effects of Russian Invasion to Taiwan
Sovereignty in Taiwan and the tension thereof is one of the hot topics in the Pacific. International and regional actors have always factored in an imminent war or conflict, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine only inflates it. However, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying dismissed any link between Ukraine and Taiwan. Taiwan and China separated due to the civil war in 1949, whereas Ukraine is an independent Eastern European state with close relations with the Western world.
Since the beginning of the Russian invasion in Ukraine, Chinese officials have given nuanced, if not contradictory, statements related to China’s stance over Taiwan. The Chinese approach is very careful to the crisis in Ukraine, pre-empting for unexpected developments in its vicinity. China, like other powers, is keen on its own interests and security.
Russia has already stated that it is ready for a prolonged economic fight which would probably have enormous consequences. One would doubt whether China can fight against similar sanctions while it has investments in a wealth of states through the Belt and Road Initiative and such initiatives. Another question is if the West and its allies can dare to unite against China, as they have done against Russia. Despite all the discussions about security concerns in the West through Chinese investments or setting up debt traps against some countries, relations between the West and China are still relatively unbreakable. Neither China wants to go backwards economically, nor does the West want to turn away from the world’s largest market.
China had the chance to observe and gauge the West’s reaction, particularly that of the EU, during Russia’s unjust and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. The West has been showing its support for Ukraine since the war began, and it may also apply to Taiwan. Although Taiwan has very limited international recognition as a sovereign state, western states have some form of relationship under different representative offices. Furthermore, as a democratic administration, Taiwan plays a crucial role in the global supply chain for the high-tech and semiconductor industries. The semiconductor industry in Taiwan is known as the country’s “guardian mountain”. Taiwan is also a valuable partner for the US in military technology. So, in addition to its geopolitical importance, the Taiwan-West technological bond should not be underestimated, and such an invasion against Taiwan might unite the West around the US for whom the bell tolls.
Research results show that a significant amount of the public in Taiwan consider their situation to be very similar to Ukraine’s. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is extensively covered in local broadcasts, which diffuse fear among Taiwanese people. This anxiety is fuelled even more while the Chinese Communist Party dares to discuss in mass media what to do with the Taiwanese Army after ‘reuniting’ with PRC. According to an article, ‘the idea of separatism’ is spreading in the Taiwanese army. Thus, basically dissolving it would spread the separatist ideas to the society. The author hence proposes 3 methods: training the soldiers in line with Chinese mentality, disbanding them and integrating into the society or dealing with ‘the stubborn pro-Taiwanese army’. It is crystal clear that such publications only feed Taiwanese anxieties and justify Taiwan’s security concerns.
Every conflict has its own history and dynamics. Taiwan is different from Ukraine in the sense that the former is not a fully independent state, and China will surely manipulate Taiwan’s official status in the international arena. While Taiwan’s China nightmare is comprehensible, it should be cautious in delegating its defence to external actors and prevent any escalation in the status quo. Because geography, sociology and history urge the two to live together.
Towards a New Global Order
Over the last few days, the world has been witnessing what we might call in a few years, the beginning of a new era marked by the reaction of the West to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In 1991 Samuel P. Huntington wrote his essay entitled Democracy’s Third Wave. In this essay, he outlined three democratisation waves. The first one started in the early 1800s and ended in 1926. The second wave began after the Second World War and finished in the early 1960s. The third wave started in the mid-70s. For him, five reasons initiated the third democratisation wave. 1) Legitimacy issues that confront authoritarian regimes 2) The rise of the middle class 3) Significant changes in the Catholic churches against authoritarian governments. 4) The rise of the European Community and the US against the Soviet Union 5) Snowballing effect triggered by the benefits produced during previous democratisation waves. A subsequent reverse wave followed each democratisation wave. At the time of writing, Huntington questioned whether the third reverse wave was unfolding. Building upon this work, Luhrman and Rooney demonstrate that the third reverse wave is well underway.
Given the recent developments surrounding Ukraine’s invasion, the fourth reason for the third democratisation wave warrants attention. Because what we are witnessing in Ukraine is the result of a weak alliance against Russia. If we revisit the events that led to the invasion of Ukraine, two of them come to the front. First, Russia’s attack on Georgia and second, the annexation of Crimea by Russia. At the time, the West remained silent whilst Russia was violating the integrity of the two nations. Since then, the UK has left the EU, and the US has suffered a significant democratic backsliding and failed in Afghanistan. These developments were signs of weakness amongst the Western nations, which fueled Putin’s desire to invade Ukraine and replace its government with a pro-Russian one. Putin’s last move was perhaps the most striking manifestation of the third autocratisation wave.
Up until the invasion, it seemed that the West was getting weaker, and Russia, along with China, was becoming much stronger. As the attack began, this somewhat concerning picture has started to change. The US, alongside its allies including Germany and even Switzerland, joined in the war against Russia’s illegal military action in Ukraine. Though they have not actively participated in the war, they have supported Ukraine from the very beginning. It should also be noted that these countries aligned themselves with the US as the invasion of Ukraine created an either with us -the US and the West- or with them -Russia- situation. Of course, one might argue that it could have never happened had the West reacted to Russia’s oppression in the region before. Putting this aside, Russia’s struggle to take Kyiv has resulted in a strong emerging alliance against Russia.
Despite this strong emerging alliance against Russia’s oppression, it is long overdue as the invasion has already affected millions of civilian lives. The delayed reaction from organisations like the UN has a lot to do with the current situation in Ukraine. Consequently, whether such organisations conformed to the expectations when they were designed requires an immediate answer. It is important to note that the Second World War resulted in the formation of organisations such as the UN. It would be wishful thinking to posit that the invasion of Ukraine will strengthen alliances in the West and consequently organisations like the UN, thus preventing the rise of dictators like Putin.
To assess the situation at hand, we must pay close attention to the emerging alliances between China and Russia. Every major conflict in history has made significant changes to the world order. China’s stance on Russia’s invasion so far is vague. However, if China decides to support Russia, the new world order might be along the lines of democracies and autocracies. To put it simply, China will become a deciding factor in shaping the future of the new world order.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will for sure be a watershed moment in contemporary history. This Russian aggression and subsequent Western counter-measures left China in limbo between its prevailing economic and longstanding geopolitical interests. The contradictory announcements from the Chinese side remain indicative of its unwillingness to display a clear position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. China appears to have adopted a convoluted stance of calling on countries to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty while respecting the “legitimacy” of Russia’s security concerns.
The aspect of the crisis affecting cross-strait relations is quite significant because the crisis has seriously demonstrated the anxieties of the Taiwanese people and has given China a unique opportunity to observe and measure the response of Western countries. Some argue that China’s dream of reunification with Taiwan will inevitably occur one day. Still, the crisis will likely postpone China’s short term desire.
Another fact revealed by the Russian invasion is the scopes and limits of the Sino-Russia relationship. Despite their shared world view and the fertile environment for the global autocratisation wave, China is still hesitant to situate itself explicitly next to Russia in this confrontation against democracies. As Russia continues to show more aggression in its war, China will only find it more difficult to maintain a fragile balance between its economic interests and its geopolitical needs.
In a nutshell, China seeks to maximise its own interests in a period of conflict between Russia and the Western countries, while seeking to minimise damage to its economy and security.
 Ibrahim Genc is a PhD candidate at Griffith University in the School of Government and International Relations.
 Dr.Tuba Yalinkilic, Non-resident Research Fellow at Beyond the Horizon ISSG.
 Yunus Erbas is a Research Intern at Beyond the Horizon ISSG.