China Walks a Ukrainian Tightrope

Commentary Beijing is walking a tightrope in Ukraine. After initially giving Moscow strong support for its opposition to NATO expansion, noting that “Russia had reasonable concerns,” and a Russian invasion of Ukraine, Beijing has pulled back, tempering its support and calling for a resolution of the ongoing crisis via a diplomatic solution. Does the policy change mark a significant shift in China’s foreign policy or in its relationship with Russia? No, it simply reflects that fact that China’s desire to support its de facto Russian ally is constrained by the need to prevent a further deterioration in its relationship with the United States and the European Union (EU). Russian-Chinese relations have been growing closer over the last several years. The development has been highlighted by a marked expansion in military cooperation between the two countries, as well as mutual support on issues central to each country’s foreign policy. At the recent meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing, held against the backdrop of the Winter Olympics, for example, Xi reiterated Beijing’s opposition to the further expansion of NATO. This is a central thesis of Russia’s current foreign policy and is, at least according to the Kremlin, the reason for the current crisis over Ukraine. At the same summit, Putin reiterated Russia’s support of Beijing’s “0ne-China policy,” asserting that Taiwan was part of China and would eventually be reunited with the mainland. Historically, Russia, has been vague about its support for China’s position on Taiwan. Moscow’s support reaffirmed an earlier declaration by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that “Russia views Taiwan as part of the People’s Republic of China.” More significant was the joint statement issued by the two leaders that reads, “Friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.” Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping pose for a photograph during their meeting in Beijing on Feb. 4, 2022. (Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images) The summit and the subsequent joint statement further stoked concerns in Washington and NATO of a growing, de facto Russian-Chinese alliance. On Feb. 16, however, during a telephone call with French President Emmanuel Macron, Xi emphasized China’s support for a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis, preferably through the four-party Normandy Format talks between Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany. Three days later, on Feb. 19, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in comments at the Munich Security Conference, again emphasized Beijing’s support of a diplomatic solution, urging that the parties should return to the 2015 Minsk II Agreement. Wang also used the occasion to denounce NATO’s eastward expansion, asking rhetorically, “If NATO keeps expanding eastward, is it conducive to maintaining peace and stability in Europe?” At the core of Beijing’s strategy to manage its relationship with Washington is the belief that China should “hide capabilities and bide time.” Deception is at the center of Chinese strategic thinking: a concept that goes back all the way to Chinese general and military strategist Sun Tzu. It was Sun Tzu who famously declared in his tome “Art of War” that “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle,” adding that: “All warfare is based on deception. Hence when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away.” China is still highly dependent on access to the American domestic market for its exports and access to American investment capital and technology. The challenge for Beijing in managing its relationship with Washington is to continue to modernize its military capabilities, develop the ability to deny access to U.S. forces to its peripheral geography, especially in the East and South China Sea, and to pursue an increasingly assertive foreign policy—both toward its immediate neighbors and increasingly around the world, while at the same time ensuring that it does not raise U.S. concerns to the point that it loses access to American markets, capital, and technology. It is a strategy that Beijing has managed brilliantly, in the process of co-opting large segments of America’s political, financial, and business elites. Beijing has made it clear that access to China’s domestic market is contingent on accepting and, in particular, not criticizing China’s authoritarian foreign and domestic policies. Unfortunately, that’s a tradeoff that far too many American elites have been willing to accept—even when that acceptance serves to undermine, long term, America’s position in the world. Beijing’s support for a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis does not mark a significant change in China’s international posture. It simply reflects the fact that an assertive Russia serves Beij

China Walks a Ukrainian Tightrope

Commentary

Beijing is walking a tightrope in Ukraine. After initially giving Moscow strong support for its opposition to NATO expansion, noting that “Russia had reasonable concerns,” and a Russian invasion of Ukraine, Beijing has pulled back, tempering its support and calling for a resolution of the ongoing crisis via a diplomatic solution.

Does the policy change mark a significant shift in China’s foreign policy or in its relationship with Russia? No, it simply reflects that fact that China’s desire to support its de facto Russian ally is constrained by the need to prevent a further deterioration in its relationship with the United States and the European Union (EU).

Russian-Chinese relations have been growing closer over the last several years. The development has been highlighted by a marked expansion in military cooperation between the two countries, as well as mutual support on issues central to each country’s foreign policy.

At the recent meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Beijing, held against the backdrop of the Winter Olympics, for example, Xi reiterated Beijing’s opposition to the further expansion of NATO. This is a central thesis of Russia’s current foreign policy and is, at least according to the Kremlin, the reason for the current crisis over Ukraine.

At the same summit, Putin reiterated Russia’s support of Beijing’s “0ne-China policy,” asserting that Taiwan was part of China and would eventually be reunited with the mainland. Historically, Russia, has been vague about its support for China’s position on Taiwan. Moscow’s support reaffirmed an earlier declaration by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov that “Russia views Taiwan as part of the People’s Republic of China.”

More significant was the joint statement issued by the two leaders that reads, “Friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.”

Epoch Times Photo
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping pose for a photograph during their meeting in Beijing on Feb. 4, 2022. (Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images)

The summit and the subsequent joint statement further stoked concerns in Washington and NATO of a growing, de facto Russian-Chinese alliance.

On Feb. 16, however, during a telephone call with French President Emmanuel Macron, Xi emphasized China’s support for a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis, preferably through the four-party Normandy Format talks between Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany.

Three days later, on Feb. 19, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in comments at the Munich Security Conference, again emphasized Beijing’s support of a diplomatic solution, urging that the parties should return to the 2015 Minsk II Agreement.

Wang also used the occasion to denounce NATO’s eastward expansion, asking rhetorically, “If NATO keeps expanding eastward, is it conducive to maintaining peace and stability in Europe?”

At the core of Beijing’s strategy to manage its relationship with Washington is the belief that China should “hide capabilities and bide time.” Deception is at the center of Chinese strategic thinking: a concept that goes back all the way to Chinese general and military strategist Sun Tzu.

It was Sun Tzu who famously declared in his tome “Art of War” that “The greatest victory is that which requires no battle,” adding that:

“All warfare is based on deception. Hence when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away.”

China is still highly dependent on access to the American domestic market for its exports and access to American investment capital and technology. The challenge for Beijing in managing its relationship with Washington is to continue to modernize its military capabilities, develop the ability to deny access to U.S. forces to its peripheral geography, especially in the East and South China Sea, and to pursue an increasingly assertive foreign policy—both toward its immediate neighbors and increasingly around the world, while at the same time ensuring that it does not raise U.S. concerns to the point that it loses access to American markets, capital, and technology.

It is a strategy that Beijing has managed brilliantly, in the process of co-opting large segments of America’s political, financial, and business elites. Beijing has made it clear that access to China’s domestic market is contingent on accepting and, in particular, not criticizing China’s authoritarian foreign and domestic policies. Unfortunately, that’s a tradeoff that far too many American elites have been willing to accept—even when that acceptance serves to undermine, long term, America’s position in the world.

Beijing’s support for a diplomatic solution to the Ukraine crisis does not mark a significant change in China’s international posture. It simply reflects the fact that an assertive Russia serves Beijing’s purpose, and it is in China’s interest to support Russia as long as that support does not lead to a significant deterioration in its relationship with the United States and the EU or affect Beijing’s access to those markets. Faced with balancing those two competing needs, Beijing will, at least for now, continue to walk a Ukrainian tightrope.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.


Follow

Joseph V. Micallef is a historian, bestselling author, syndicated columnist, war correspondent, and private equity investor. He holds a master's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and was a Fulbright fellow at the Italian Institute of International Affairs. He has been a commentator for several broadcast venues and media outlets and has also written several books on military history and world affairs. His latest book, "Leadership in an Opaque Future," is forthcoming. Micallef is also a noted judge of wines and spirits and authored a bestselling book on Scotch whisky.