Main Image Credit Damage control: Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks via video link during the EU–China Summit on 1 April 2022. Image: Reuters / Alamy
China sees Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine through the lens of great power competition between itself and the US. Beijing’s obsession with the US explains not only its position on the Ukraine war, but also its overall strategic intent towards Europe, as well as its short- and medium-term relationship with Russia.
While it has been entirely justified to demand that China, as a UN Security Council Member, does everything in its power to end the war in Ukraine, Europe seem to misunderstand – or disregard – how Beijing sees the war and its geostrategic position, including its view that the EU and its member states form the weak link in the transatlantic alliance.
The Ukraine War is about Great Power Rivalry
For China, the Russian war against Ukraine is first and foremost a proxy war between Russia and the US-led NATO, and as such it confirms China’s view that the US continues to advance its hegemony at the expense of others, and primarily at the expense of the People’s Republic. While China trumpets the proxy war narrative with a surge of disinformation, together with Russia, it is also pushing ahead with a new model of international relations that includes rewriting the definition of democracy. A new international order shaped by the Chinese Communist Party is primarily about its own raison d’être and securing its power base at home. Therefore, a China-led international order ultimately aims to structure the world to make it safe for China. This new, altered world order would contain increasingly illiberal elements and fewer freedoms. It would secure its legitimacy by remodelling the fundamentals of democracy in international organisations and in people’s lives – including, increasingly, outside China – using advanced surveillance technologies and propaganda, operating on platforms the free world openly provides.
Beijing blames the US-led NATO for being the ultimate reason why Russia launched its invasion against Ukraine. Consequently, sanctions are seen as the US forcing its hand on the Europeans. The Chinese leadership appears to be calculating that by holding the US responsible for the war, it can drive a wedge through the transatlantic alliance and portray Europeans as simple puppets of US hegemony.
This thinking is in line with how Beijing sees the multipolar world of the future: an empowered China will dominate the Indo-Pacific and Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) countries, using increasingly decoupled supply chains and Yuan-based trade which together will make China more resilient and less dependent on the West. The US will be pushed across the seas into relative isolation, and its global importance will decrease. Meanwhile, the EU will become the third global pole, with strong economic ambitions but a diminished appetite for pushing its values – especially when it comes to challenging China.
China’s Strategic Intent Towards Europe
While the unified European response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine might have taken Beijing temporarily by surprise, Beijing does not think that Europe’s – often quarrelsome – unity will be long-lasting.
Despite Beijing’s vocal support for European strategic autonomy, a disunited and weak Europe is in China’s interests
As part of its balancing act, China is trying to distance itself from the war in Europe, stressing that it is a regional matter forced on Europe by the US. In return for China not getting involved in this European problem, it hopes the EU will – reciprocally – stay out of the Indo-Pacific and stop supporting the US in the region. This has been a crucial part of Beijing’s messaging lately: ‘[China] guards against the introduction of bloc confrontation into the region by the United States’.
Beijing has never taken the EU seriously as an organisation, preferring to deal separately with each member state in order to further fragment the equilibrium on the continent. China has tried to disrupt European unity in the past, and continues to use the same tools – for example, it recently sent two senior diplomats on a damage-control tour of Eastern Europe. The charm offensive indicated Beijing’s ignorance of the shock the war has caused in Europe, particularly in Eastern European countries – some of which share borders with Russia. During the EU–China Summit on 1 April, the Chinese side’s reluctance to talk about Ukraine reflected how poorly Beijing understands the seriousness of the situation in Europe. Chinese diplomats’ efforts to resolve supposed misunderstandings in Eastern Europe, while simultaneously failing to even address the Russian invasion as a war, will likely end up only damaging China’s image further.
Despite Beijing’s vocal support for European strategic autonomy – which for China means autonomy from the US – a disunited and weak Europe is in China’s interests. In the EU–China Summit, Xi Jinping called for the EU to ‘form its own perception of China and adopt an independent China policy’ – again aiming to undermine the transatlantic alliance and hinting that the EU is not acting out of self-interest. Beijing prefers a 'Merkelian' Europe where trade relations trump politics, and especially values such as human rights.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine also revealed China’s confusion over Europe, where value-based red lines have started to appear. EU representatives warned China over interfering with sanctions on Russia, and reminded China of its responsibilities as a UN Security Council member in a war that is ‘a violation … of the UN Charter’. In the absence of a means to make Europe fall in love with it again, Beijing simply doubled down on its narrative portraying China–Europe relations as separate from the US, emphasising historical civilisational connections and the long-term strategic perspective.
China’s Relationship with Russia
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi has put forward China’s five-point position on the Ukrainian ‘issue’, in which China clearly sides itself with Moscow’s security interests, which it considers as ‘legitimate’. This, and the emphasis on respecting sovereignty and territorial integrity – China’s core interests – mirrors China’s position in the Indo-Pacific.
A protracted war will have an impact on Western economies, and Beijing calculates that it is only a matter of time before Europeans grow anxious about rising inflation and energy prices
A stable relationship with Russia allows China to divert its attention elsewhere. China and Russia’s partnership serves both countries’ short- and medium-term objectives. Their aims are not identical, but in areas such as shaping the international order and improving regional security in order to make the world safer for their regimes, they share many common interests. Russia backs China in confronting the US, and is helping to make China more resilient to outside shocks when it comes to energy, a wide range of raw materials, and food supply. Neither China nor Russia sees the current international order as legitimate, and just recently, Beijing highlighted once again how China and Russia have ‘committed themselves to developing a new model of international relations’.
Furthermore, while the US and Europe are primarily focused on the Ukraine war, China’s sound relationship with Russia allows Beijing to enjoy more diplomatic latitude in the Indo-Pacific and to redirect its attention towards the Belt and Road, where its plans for land connectivity with Europe have been stalled – if not almost killed off – by the war. Beijing needs to rethink its major geoeconomic vehicle, and it is likely that the corridors with Pakistan, Iran and Turkey will become increasingly central, while China’s footprint in the Middle East and Africa will continue to deepen. In this geoeconomic play, China will also benefit from Russia-driven initiatives such as the Eurasian Economic Union, which it can potentially absorb into the BRI’s orbit.
The underlying pain points between China and Russia can be swept under the carpet for the time being, but not forever. Russia knows that its position with regards to China is vulnerable, but currently it has no options. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already put Russia and China on a tightrope in Central Asia and has left the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in an awkward position. China has called on the SCO to play an active role ‘in the Ukrainian conflict’, but the Chinese foreign minister’s request to SCO members to ‘condemn the revival of the cold war mentality … and resolutely oppose illegal unilateral sanctions’ sounded more like asking them to support China’s position than to help resolve the war. Meanwhile, some SCO members, such as Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, have assisted Ukraine and indicated their support for Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty.
Beijing knows how to play the long game. With each day that the war goes on, China gains more leverage over Russia. It keeps demonstrating its support through heavy internal propaganda, backed by eager netizens voicing their anger against the US. A protracted war will have an impact on Western economies, and Beijing calculates that it is only a matter of time before Europeans grow anxious about rising inflation and energy prices, which could result in diminishing solidarity towards Ukraine and eventually disrupt Western unity. For now, looking at the Ukraine war from Zhongnanhai, Xi Jinping has almost nothing to lose, but much to gain.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
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Dr Sari Arho Havrén
Associate Fellow - Specialist in China’s foreign relations