‘An advocate for peace, not for Russia’. This is perhaps the message that Beijing was trying to push in its Ukraine peace initiative on the war's first anniversary.
The 12-point document proposes a plan for a settlement in Ukraine, reiterating Beijing’s familiar posture on UN jurisdiction, respect for state sovereignty, and the rejection of unilateral steps that undermine international norms.
The initiative, nonetheless, does not propose a workable roadmap nor speak about what the international norms specifically mean for Ukraine. It instead focuses on the casus belli, speaking of NATO eastward expansion and the US-led unilateral sanctions, which Beijing has been outspokenly critical of.
Hollow as it may be, the initiative is by far the most explicit Chinese involvement in the conflict, following a full year of ‘declared neutrality,’ or rather ‘pro-Russia neutrality.’ Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may have taken China by surprise but did not generate the same condemnatory reaction as when Russia invaded Georgia’s Abkhazia in 2008.
China declared its support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, but without condemning or criticising Russia directly. Foreign minister Wang Y expressed to his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov that Beijing stood behind the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries,” but also accommodated the Kremlin’s narrative by saying that “China recognises the complex and special historical context of the Ukraine issue”.
Some speculate that the recent peace initiative could be a sign that Beijing is growing impatient with Russia’s performance in Ukraine. Prolonged war is guaranteed to create geopolitical complexities unfavourable to China’s economic objectives.
Currently suffering from slowing growth, post-Covid repercussions, and an ageing population - China still needs Western technology and trade to boost its economy. It also continues to operate within a global order dominated by the United States, despite an all-time decline in Sino-US relations.
As such, the Chinese left the door of economic partnership ajar for the EU, neither explicitly supporting Russia’s invasion nor sharing with European counterparts their enthusiasm for Ukraine.
Last year, in an attempt to salvage EU-China sour relations over Ukraine, China’s ambassador to the EU, Fu Cong, suggested that Brussels should drop the issue of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine from China-EU bilateral agendas, together with ending the 2021 EU-led sanctions on China.
Western commentators are not enamoured with China's attempts to cosy up to the EU. China’s core objectives, they argue, are primarily geared toward bypassing the US-led China containment policy and having better access to EU technology and market. Assuming a mediatory role in Ukraine may only be a tactic in that direction.
With the peace initiative, China wants to cause some ripples in Ukraine’s stagnant water partly to have a foothold in the conflict and sway its outcome in Beijing’s favour. Any developments that lead to Russia’s defeat or regime change in Moscow will weaken Beijing’s strategic competition against the United States.
Beijing’s posture toward Washington is anchored in the existence of a viable Russia, and this has been the evolving approach for decades. Since the late 1990s, Sino-Russian cooperation transitioned from a strategic cooperative partnership to a no-limits partnership. This resulted in a high-level exchange of intelligence, increased Russian arms sales to China, and some diplomatic coordination over Eurasia and the Middle East.
What deeply unifies Beijing and Moscow is their dissatisfaction with the US global hegemony. Both countries have long sought to establish a multipolar order. In it, the US and its allies cannot set the rules to their advantage, unilaterally specify what it means to be a democracy, or impose culturally biased definitions of human rights.
By setting up new global agendas, China’s eyes are also fixated on Taiwan. If China invades and annexes Taiwan, Beijing can redraw the map of US security alliances and interests in the Indo-Pacific region.
Though, after a year of slow Russian gains in Ukraine, thanks mainly to Western support to Kyiv, the Chinese have learnt that before invading Taiwan they will have to erect tremendous obstacles to stop the US and its Western allies from reusing the Ukraine playbook in Taiwan.
At the onset of the war, Beijing sought to help Russia maintain not necessarily a military edge but a viable economy. The Chinese had thrown to Moscow an economic lifeline to alleviate the impact of Western sanctions. Russia’s fiscal revenues have only increased and the ruble grew in value, partly because of the re-routing of its oil exports from Europe to keen buyers in the East like China.
Between March and December, China bought roughly $50b worth of crude oil, a 45% increase compared to the same period in 2021. In total, the Sino-Russian trade went up by 30% in 2022. China is also a gateway for Russia to access ASEAN, which helps sustains Russia’s economy and, by extension, its war efforts in Ukraine.
The burning question is whether Russia can achieve its goals in Ukraine - decisively or in a timely manner - with an economic lifeline alone. Indicators show that some Chinese military assistance may be required to shorten the war and secure a Russian positive outcome.
Early this month, State Secretary Antony Blinken warned that China has been weighing whether to provide lethal weapons to Moscow. He also suggested that China “almost certainly” has already been supplying Russia with “some non-lethal, dual-use type support.”
Millions of Dutch-made microchips reportedly reached Russia via Chinese companies. These chips are routinely found in Russian drones and precision weapons, such as cruise missiles. China has also been Russia’s largest supplier of semiconductors partly utilised for military purposes.
Any direct Chinese provision of weapons to Russia will certainly be a game changer. But Beijing’s decision will likely be meticulously calculated, weighing the long-term benefits versus the potential risks of economic and political sanctions.
It may all come down to how the Ukraine war will fare - especially as Russia prepares for a massive offensive in the coming weeks - and how that will impact China’s global economic growth and its ambitious plan to annex Taiwan.
Dr Emad Moussa is a researcher and writer who specialises in the politics and political psychology of Palestine/Israel.
Follow him on Twitter: @emadmoussa
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.