Despite Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — which marks a clear violation of international law — Moscow has enjoyed support from a number of countries. Foremost among these is China. Over the last year, Beijing has not supported Russia in U.N. votes, has refrained from providing Russia with weapons, and has publicly proclaimed neutrality. But China has also refused to condemn the invasion, often repeated the Kremlin’s talking points about the war, opposed sanctions against Russia and helped prop up its economy. On the anniversary of the invasion, China released what it had previewed as a peace plan, which really amounted to a statement of principles reflecting Beijing’s longstanding talking points about the war.
How can one understand relations between China and Russia a year into the Ukraine conflict? USIP’s Andrew Scobell, Carla Freeman and Mary Glantz discuss China-Russia relations, Beijing’s so-called plan for a political settlement to the war and how it has been received in Kyiv.
Is China providing any military assistance to Russia?
Scobell: While China has yet to provide weapons to Russia since Vladimir Putin ordered that country’s military to invade Ukraine in February 2022, it seems that Beijing is seriously considering selling Moscow a range of military equipment, U.S. officials have warned in recent days. Such a step by China would constitute a significant development for two reasons. First, if China agreed to provide Russia access to a wide range of systems and supplies, it might allow Moscow to regain momentum on the battlefield. Second, this would signal a qualitative change in China’s geostrategic calculus. Beijing’s provision of military assistance would mean that China is shifting from a stance of guarded albeit pro-Russian “neutrality” to a more unabashedly pro-Russian posture.
The United States has made it clear to China that this move would adversely affect U.S.-China relations. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that severe sanctions are on the table. China’s other major market, Europe, would likely follow suit. Thus, such a decision from China would almost certainly be predicated in part on an assessment by Beijing that any meaningful improvement in bilateral relations with Washington was unlikely to occur any time soon.
Certainly, China’s military has continued to conduct exercises with its Russian counterparts even as the war continues to rage in Ukraine. Yet Beijing has sought to position itself as an impartial observer of the conflict. Moreover, China has for months called for dialogue and urged all sides to exercise restraint. Last week, these statements culminated in a 12-point proposal issued on the first anniversary of the launching of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. (For more on the proposal, see question four.)
China’s senior-most diplomat recently visited Russia. What does this tell us about Beijing’s relations with Moscow and Washington?
Scobell: China’s pro-Russian neutrality was on full display last month when State Councilor Wang Yi, China’s senior-most diplomat, traveled to Moscow after visiting multiple European cities. The contrast between Wang’s harsh words and confrontational stance toward Blinken on the sidelines of the recent Munich Security Conference and Wang’s “relaxed” rapport with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and his affable interaction with Russian President Vladimir Putin was stark.
What also speaks volumes is where Wang not chose not to go: neither Washington nor Kyiv. Blinken had been preparing to visit Beijing several weeks ago, but the trip was scrapped because of the episode with Beijing’s surveillance balloon. China had appeared very keen to welcome America’s top diplomat, borne of what seemed like a desire to thaw the frigid climate in U.S.-China relations. Whether this sentiment continues to exist is unclear. If Beijing had wanted to send an unmistakable trans-Pacific message that Beijing was very serious about improving relations, then it would have proposed dispatching Wang to Washington at an early date.
China recently announced the launch of a ‘Global Security Initiative.’ What, if anything, does it mean for China’s approach to Ukraine?
Freeman: China marked the anniversary of the war in Ukraine with a volley of statements on global security and ending the Ukraine conflict. On February 21, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a “concept paper” for a “Global Security Initiative” (GSI) long on principles and China-centric in practice. Xi sketched the GSI as his latest global initiative at the Boao Forum in April last year, but the concept paper offers more fulsome details about the GSI’s principles, priorities and mechanisms. The list of principles begins with what is described as a Xi-initiated “vision” for preventing conflict and sustaining security, followed by an emphasis on the “fundamental norms” of sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Following a Chinese foreign ministry statement a day earlier criticizing the U.S. role as a global security actor, the GSI paper portrays China as the source of a conceptually new, more multilateral approach to global security. The GSI concept paper promotes the U.N. and certain U.N. frameworks as core sources of global security. But the paper’s call for a “community of shared security for mankind” echoes China’s campaign to reshape prevailing modes of global governance. It notably prioritizes regional groupings in which China plays a leading role or exercises influence, including a number forged by China itself, like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization or the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation, among others.
China just announced a statement of principles “on the political settlement of the Ukraine crisis.” How seriously should we take this move?
Freeman and Scobell: China’s position paper on how to arrive at a political settlement for Ukraine, issued on the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, caps off China’s February campaign to promote “Chinese wisdom” in global security. That the proposal has galvanized some diplomatic activity around ending the war is important to recognize and, though Kyiv has not embraced the proposal, it has not condemned it. However, the phrases from the GSI that pepper China’s plan for peace in Ukraine add froth to its vagaries and the proposal’s critique of the West drains it of neutrality.
Indeed, China’s 12-point proposal is unlikely to advance the cause of peace in Ukraine for at least three reasons. First, because Beijing is not considered an impartial actor by most countries, including Ukraine. Although China portrays itself as a neutral state, its sympathies and actions belie this, revealing an enduring and steadfast pro-Russia stance. Second, China’s proposals are vague, anodyne and lack almost any concrete or specific suggestions. Third and most importantly, Beijing is unlikely to follow up these proposals with any serious or concerted effort because it is unwilling to expend political capital or incur any geopolitical costs. In short, this proposal is intended to give China the aura of a responsible great power without any serious commitment to follow through on its high-minded pronouncements. Beijing also has a broader audience in mind with its proposal, which in many ways was geared toward a Global South audience as evidence of China’s status and ideology as an alternative to the “hegemonic” West.
That said, there is one Chinese proposal that might at least lessen the likelihood of Russia using nuclear weaponry. In fact, Beijing’s statement opposing the use of nuclear weapons may be the most important of the 12 proposals.
How does Ukraine perceive China’s statement of principles?
Glantz and Scobell: Ukraine has refrained from rejecting China’s efforts to assert itself as would-be peacemaker in Russia’s war against that country. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomed some elements of the Chinese proposal — the first principle calls for respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations. He noted, however, that any peace settlement that did not result in full Russian withdrawal from all Ukrainian territory was a non-starter. Zelenskyy told the press that Chinese interest in the war was “not bad.” The president’s position was echoed by other Ukrainian officials. Zelenskyy elaborated, however, that Ukraine was also interested in China showing its support for peace by helping efforts to isolate Russia and by not supplying weapons to Russia. Furthermore, Zelenskyy observed that “China respects territorial integrity … and therefore must do whatever they can for the Russian Federation to leave our territory.”
While others in the West, including the United States, have expressed more skepticism about the Chinese proposal, Ukraine is undoubtedly interested in keeping China as a potential restraint on Russian aggression (like, for example, helping to deter Russia from using weapons of mass destruction). Kyiv probably also considers it important not to reject the Chinese proposal outright. To that end, Zelenskyy expressed his intention to meet with Xi, though he did not specify a date.