Opinion: China’s tightrope act with Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose during their meeting in Beijing, on Feb. 4.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose during their meeting in Beijing, on Feb. 4.

Alexei Druzhinin /Sputnik /AFP / TNS

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has put China’s commitment to its recently signed “Friendship Treaty” with Moscow to the test. In the agreement, both countries reaffirmed that relations between them would have “no limits.” While up to now China has not denounced Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military intervention, Beijing is finding it increasingly difficult to balance or justify its support for Russia. At the same time, China’s President Xi Jinping is facing a number of domestic challenges which are further complicating this balancing act. Will China be able to continue its support for Russia despite Putin’s military failures, accusations of war crimes, crippling international sanctions, and facing a united NATO or will it be forced to finally “pick a side” in the conflict?

China’s response to the Ukrainian crisis has been at times contradictory. It abstained from voting for the United Nations resolution against the Russian invasion in both the Security Council (where it holds a veto) and the General Assembly. While Beijing has stated publicly in the past that it supports the right to “national sovereignty” and “non-interference in the internal affairs” of other countries, it does appear that China is willing to deny Ukraine’s right to such protections. It has argued that Russia had “legitimate security concerns” in Ukraine and blamed the United States and NATO expansion for leaving Russia with no option but to act. China has opposed Western sanctions against Russia which its claims “have no basis in international law.” At the same time, Beijing has also indicated that it will for the most part comply with those sanctions. Beijing has committed almost $800,000 in humanitarian aid to Ukraine while calling for restraint in civilian casualties. It is difficult to determine whether Xi is putting any pressure on Putin to limit the bloodshed, but it seems unlikely as it continues. And, as recently as April 19, China’s vice foreign minister assured the Russian ambassador that China will continue to increase its “strategic coordination” with Moscow regardless of international volatility.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has also echoed Russia’s “alternative reality” of events in Ukraine. Beijing understands the importance of messaging that the fault lies with others, and not with the authoritarian government in power. Xi has defended Russia’s actions as a result of “reasonable security concerns.” China’s attacks on the Western alliance also use the same language as that of the Russian state media. A CCP newspaper, for instance, described the war crimes in Bucha as a “hoax.”

At the same time, China has a number of domestic challenges which complicate its balancing act with Russia. China’s zero-tolerance COVID policy — relying on mass testing, quarantines and lockdowns — is facing serious pushback. Xi had initially trumpeted the great success of his COVID policy in relation to the disarray in America and Europe. The recent spread of the Omicron variant in China, and the draconian lockdown in Shanghai — a city of 25 million people — however, has posed a challenge to this claim. Food and medical shortages have resulted in protests which the government has tried to quell by erecting green fences to keep residents in their homes. In Beijing, nearly 20 million people have been tested, which has led to panic food buying for fear of a similar lockdown.

China’s dynamic economic growth has also shown signs of slowing down to 5.5 percent for 2022, the lowest since 1991. The growing economic cost of each new COVID outbreak is contributing to this decline. According to the Japanese bank Nomura, 373 million people in 45 Chinese cities are under some kind of lockdown which account for about $7.2 trillion in annual gross domestic product.

Such slow growth is likely to raise concerns for Xi, undermining his campaign of “common prosperity” to shrink the country’s wealth gap. In addition, Beijing understands that it has more to lose by jeopardizing its trade relationships with the United States and Europe than by preserving its economic ties with Russia. In 2021 Beijing conducted $828 billion worth of trade with the European Union, $756 billion with the United States, and only $147 billion with Russia.

President Xi is also facing a turbulent year that he had hoped would cement his third, four-year term at the upcoming Communist Party Congress. Xi has staked his reputation on the successful control of the pandemic and wants to show how China has become more prosperous, powerful, and stable under his rule. Anti-lockdown protests, slowed economic growth, and a stalemate in Ukraine could pose a serious political test for his leadership.

China’s challenge is that is has strategically thrown its hat in with Russia, and is now tactically having to balance that commitment. How long will Beijing be able to keep up its “tightrope act” before internal and external circumstances make it a no longer a tenable course? At this point, Xi might believe that it would be worse for China to criticize Russia, as it would demonstrate that the CCP had made a mistake. But at some point soon, Beijing might no longer have that choice.

Stamford resident Joanna M. Gwozdziowski, PhD, is senior program adviser for Network 20/20. She was a board member of the World Affairs Forum for more than 10 years, including as chair of programs. She has a doctorate in International Relations from Oxford University, with a specialization in Russian and Central/East European affairs.