A public stance of neutrality is geared towards self-preservation
Top Western political and security officials have grown increasingly alarmed about the prospect of China providing Russia with lethal military equipment to bolster its war effort in Ukraine.
Just this weekend, CIA director William Burns said that he was “confident” that the Chinese leadership was considering the move, with US President Joe Biden explicitly threatening to “respond” should China follow through with it.
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Publicly, Beijing has taken something of a neutral position on the war and, last week, it published a position paper on the “Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis”. The communiqué’s listed principles include respect for “the sovereignty of all countries”, “stopping unilateral sanctions”, “abandoning the Cold War mentality”, “ceasing hostilities”, “resuming peace talks”, “protecting civilians and prisoners of war (POWs)”, “promoting post-conflict reconstruction”, and stressing the need to abide by international law. At no point does it denounce or even explicitly mention Russia’s invasion. However, in one part of the document China apparently takes a shot at NATO, asserting that “the security of a region should not be achieved by strengthening or expanding military blocs”.
And with an eye to its own national interests, given recent threats of sanction from the US and other Western countries, China stakes its opposition to “unilateral sanctions unauthorized by the UN Security Council”, urging these states to “stop abusing unilateral sanctions and “long-arm jurisdiction” against other countries. This comes in the wake of sanctions threats by a high-ranking US Treasury official to punish Chinese companies if they continue doing business with certain Russian firms. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning countered these statements, saying that “the US is in no position to point fingers at China-Russia relations” and that Beijing will “not accept coercion or pressure from the US”.
Yet, despite this seemingly impartial rhetoric, Manoj Kewalramani, author of the daily newsletter ‘Tracking People’s Daily’, has said of the paper that “no one who reads this can come away with the idea that China is in any way a neutral mediator.” He is one of several analysts to argue that China clearly wants to see a Russian military victory in Ukraine.
Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Fellow at RSIS, told UnHerd that such an outcome “would be perceived as a win by its ‘side’ in the geopolitical confrontation against the West”. Moreover, it would “emphasise that the ‘might is right’ approach to international affairs is dominant and the rules-based system championed by the West is in the past”. China does not view the outbreak of this conflict as ideal, however: “now the cards have been dealt, they are playing them to their advantage — which means supporting Moscow.”
And although there is no concrete evidence of China supplying Russia with weapons, armour, or ammunition thus far, Beijing has supported the Russian campaign in several other ways. Pantucci notes how China is helping economically, technologically, and by “providing some cover to Russia on the international stage, in the UN and elsewhere”, leveraging its influence as the world’s second largest economy. The Wall Street Journal reported this month that Chinese state-owned defence companies were supplying Russia with jamming technology, jet-fighter parts, and shipping navigation equipment to Russian firms.
Carl Peterson, a security analyst for the Militant Wire research network, adds that if Beijing becomes more deeply involved with lethal provisions, it “could be part of a longer-term play in which the US is tied down in the European theatre”. There are already worries about the depletion of NATO member countries’ weapons stockpiles, so any added military industrial support from China would make it very difficult, if not impossible, for Ukraine-supporting states to match.
But the past year has shown a surprising degree of Western unity, and no end in the conflict appears to be in sight. Should the US and its allies succeed in defeating Russia in Ukraine, not only would a strategic partner with a lengthy shared border become weakened and perhaps unstable, but Washington would also become further emboldened and confident in its push to unite a coalition to contain China in the Asia-Pacific. In short, Beijing is worried that it is next in America’s sights.