Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine in February 2022 posed challenges for the People’s Republic of China and its priorities. This article assesses the Chinese party-state’s response across four dimensions: informational, diplomatic, economic, and military-strategic. Beijing has been most supportive of Moscow in the informational and diplomatic arenas; its economic posture has been mostly self-interested, and military support for Russia has remained more or less constant. China’s stance on the conflict in Ukraine appears to be shaped by several factors: a perceived need to counter the United States; the desire to support Russia while minimizing the costs of doing so to Chinese interests; China’s desire for internal political stability and particular features of its domestic political system that affect foreign policy decision-making; and Beijing’s evolving assessments of what the Ukraine conflict might foretell for Taiwan. The article summarizes China’s interests at the time the conflict began, outlines the party-state’s response, and assesses potential explanations for that response, with specific attention to implications for Taiwan.
Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine on February 24, 2022, posed challenges for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its priorities, leading to what analysts have termed “irreconcilable choices” (Feigenbaum 2022) and a subsequent “strategic straddle” (Medeiros 2022). This essay assesses the Chinese party-state’s varied response across four dimensions: informational, diplomatic, economic, and military-strategic. Beijing has been most supportive of Moscow in the informational and diplomatic arenas, while its economic posture has been determined mostly by self-interest, and military support for Russia has remained relatively consistent. China’s stance on the conflict in Ukraine appears to be shaped by a number of factors: a perceived need to counter the United States; the desire to support Russia while also minimizing the costs of doing so to Chinese interests; Beijing’s desire for domestic stability and particular features of China’s domestic political system that affect foreign policy decision-making; and evolving Chinese assessments of what the Ukraine conflict might foretell for Taiwan. In the pages below, I outline China’s interests at the time the conflict began, trace the contours of the party-state’s response, and assess potential explanations for that response, with specific attention to implications for Taiwan.
Outlining China’s Interests on the Eve of the Ukraine Invasion
The most visible PRC priority on the eve of the invasion of Ukraine was China’s partnership with Russia. On February 4, Xi Jinping and Russian president Vladimir Putin signed a joint statement reaffirming and outlining the contours of their high-level strategic partnership (President of Russia 2022). The statement included a phrase about the partnership having “no limits,” which received significant attention in the aftermath of the invasion, as analysts wondered whether it had been a tacit green light for Putin’s “special military operation.” Chinese press coverage of the summit noted the close personal ties between the two leaders, reporting that this was their 38th in-person meeting (Wu 2022; Zhongguo Xinwenwang 2022). Others noted that the bilateral relationship has more “substantial and enduring roots” (Medeiros 2022, 2), including common interests in energy, trade, and military technology (Lukin 2022; see also FMPRC 2022a), and pursuit of an authoritarian political system wherein power is increasingly concentrated in the top leader (Gabuev 2022; Wishnick 2022).
Language in the joint statement strongly suggests that both Russia and China see the US as the main threat not only to their external security but also to the domestic stability of their regimes, and therefore share an interest in constraining American power in the international system. Anna Kireeva (2022) noted that “China’s support for Russia’s stance against NATO enlargement” was one of the new things in the joint statement; that claim that has since become central to Chinese rhetoric (see below). Also notable, however, was the following language:
Russia and China stand against attempts by external forces to undermine security and stability in their common adjacent regions, intend to counter interference by outside forces in the internal affairs of sovereign countries under any pretext, oppose colour revolutions, and will increase cooperation in the aforementioned areas.
Igor Denisov (2022) highlighted this as a new development, interpreting “common adjacent regions” to refer to Central Asia; most Western scholars and policy analysts appeared to see it as a reference to the regional security challenges posed by Ukraine and Taiwan, respectively. Indeed, the broader passage in which this sentence appears also draws parallels between the security challenges facing Russia in Europe and China in the Indo-Pacific, setting the stage for comparisons that Beijing has since attempted to reject (see below). Kefferputz and Brussee (2022) argue that the Russia–China relationship has become increasingly focused on geopolitics, and that opposition to the US and NATO has increasingly featured in joint statements under Xi, distinct from the rhetorical emphasis of Jiang and Hu. This suggests that China’s current high-level partnership with Russia is driven by core security interests that shape how China behaves in the world: it is entered into not for its own sake, but because it serves Chinese interests—a point to which I return below.
China’s second publicly stated interest on the eve of the invasion of the Ukraine is in upholding certain foreign policy principles such as sovereignty, territorial integrity, and noninterference in the domestic affairs of other countries. These principles have a long history in PRC foreign policy, but were also recently affirmed by Xi in his speech launching the Global Security Initiative at the Boao Forum in April 2022 (Xi 2022; Chestnut Greitens 2022b; for a comparative analysis of China’s approach to state sovereignty, see Fung 2022). Xi urged countries to “stay committed to respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, uphold noninterference in internal affairs,” and abide “by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter.” The joint statement also refers to these commitments, noting that “the sides reaffirm their strong mutual support for the protection of their core interests, state sovereignty and territorial integrity, and oppose interference by external forces in their internal affairs.” The Russian invasion of Ukraine, however, challenged these principles in ways that remain unresolved; as I discuss below, China has continued to include these principles in its rhetoric, but has not sought to enforce them as global norms by sanctioning Russia in any ways that would be costly to Chinese interests.
China’s third priority is domestic stability, especially in the run-up to the 20th Party Congress in fall 2022, where Xi will pursue a third term that breaks the post-Deng precedent of China’s last several leaders (Shepherd and Dou 2022; Shih 2022). Analysts have assumed that Xi wants to keep the economy on as positive a trajectory as possible during this year of political transition. But doing so appears to be a challenge, as the economy is slowing due to a combination of factors: slowing global demand for Chinese exports, Beijing’s zero-COVID policies, and Xi’s reassertion of party control over some facets of the Chinese economy (Douglas and Harrison 2022; Douglas, Xie, and Cheng 2022; Wu 2022).
Characterizing domestic stability as one of China’s core interests in 2022 has several implications for foreign and domestic policy. One implication for foreign policy is that China will seek to maintain economic relationships with its largest trading partners, including the US and Europe, to foster as much economic stability as possible. This means avoiding unnecessary tensions and disruption from the crisis in Ukraine—no small task when relationships with the US and the European Union have already been strained over other issues, such as China’s handling of COVID-19, human rights issues in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, and more (Carnegie Endowment 2022; Oertel 2022). A second, more domestically focused implication is that Beijing may have little tolerance for debate or criticism of party leaders and their policy choices during this period, and therefore, that the desire for internal regime stability may promote consistency in foreign policy where other interests suggest benefits from a potential change in course.
Tracing the Contours of China’s Response to the Conflict Thus Far
The Chinese party-state’s response has varied across four dimensions: informational, diplomatic, economic, and military-strategic. The PRC has been actively supportive of Russia in the informational and, secondarily, diplomatic realms. Its approach to the conflict’s economic dimensions has been mixed, largely guided by self-interest. Finally, Chinese military-security support for Russia has remained steady: it has maintained current (and recently expanded) levels of security cooperation, but has not provided direct military assistance to the Russian warfighting effort.
China’s official messaging and the information it has shared on the Ukraine conflict have been strongly pro-Russia and aligned with Russia’s own messaging. This alignment is more than rhetorical, given the centrality of information operations to the unfolding course of conflict. Perhaps the most consistent theme in Chinese rhetoric has been that ultimate blame for the origin of the conflict lies with the US and NATO, because the overexpansion of NATO in eastern Europe militarized the region and precipitated Russia’s “special military operation.” (Chinese officials and news outlets initially avoided calling Russia’s action an invasion, though by late April they had begun calling it a war. Chinese media have also used passive constructions such as “conflict broke out”—a phrase that has sometimes been used to avoid admitting North Korean culpability in the initiation of the Korean War.)
For example, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying asked in late February whether NATO and the US had “forced Russia into a corner” by expanding NATO to Russia’s doorstep (Hua 2022). She rebutted questions about the US invoking the principle of state sovereignty by saying that “the US is in no position to tell China off”; argued that “China still faces a realistic threat from the US flanked by its several allies as they wantonly and grossly meddle in China’s domestic affairs and undermine China’s sovereignty and security on issues including Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan”; and pointed to NATO’s 1999 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade to claim that NATO still “owes the Chinese people a debt of blood” (FMPRC 2022b). References to NATO expansion among Chinese official accounts from January to April 2022 far outnumbered the comparable period in 2021 (366 versus 36; Cooper et al. 2022). Similarly, in a bilateral meeting with Russian counterparts in September 2022, Li Zhanshu, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, repeated the claim that Russia’s actions in Ukraine were a “necessary measure” in response to the threat of NATO expansion (quoted in Feng 2022). In Central and Eastern Europe, Chinese diplomats and state media outlets have varied in the intensity and frequency of their messaging, but often appear to have recycled these global talking points—including portraying NATO as Voldemort in radio content in at least three countries in the region (Karaskova et al. 2022).
At multiple points since the conflict’s outbreak, PRC diplomats and state media have also accused NATO and the US of inflaming and profiting from the conflict. Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin claimed on March 4 that the US was profiting from the conflict.1 On March 21, Xinhua (2022a) ran an article claiming that the US had “triple-gained” by encircling Russia, dampening European strategic autonomy, and ensuring that its defense industry profited from the conflict. In April, in remarks on the Global Security Initiative, vice foreign minister Le Yucheng (2022) argued that the US wanted to “profit from the war and control Europe.” As Maria Repnikova (2022a) notes, many of these criticisms of the US on Ukraine specifically “feed into larger patterns in Chinese media of targeting the moral standing of the U.S.,” as well as of bolstering Chinese nationalism.
At times, China’s amplification of Russian criticisms of the US and NATO has included active promotion of Russian disinformation. In March, Russia’s Ministry of Defense claimed to have evidence that the US was running bioweapons labs in Ukraine, a claim Chinese officials repeated and amplified. This Chinese amplification has been more voluminous over some periods and in some outlets than Russian disinformation itself, and is closely tied to a previous disinformation campaign in which PRC officials tried to blame a bioresearch lab in Fort Detrick, Maryland, for the outbreak of coronavirus and the resulting global pandemic (Cooper et al. 2022). The bioweapons claim is not the only example of disinformation repetition: officials and state media outlets have also suggested that the Bucha massacres were staged (CGTN 2022; Mozur, Myers, and Liu 2022) and that the Ukrainian government is a neo-Nazi government (see below)—leading the US State Department to publicly comment on China’s amplification of Russian narratives (Bandurski 2022; Dwoskin 2022; US Department of State 2022; for Chinese claims about American disinformation, see Chinese Embassy 2022). As Medeiros (2022) notes, Beijing’s choice to so closely parallel and elevate Russian rhetoric, including disinformation, has become a source of friction and open tension in the US–China bilateral relationship.
Beijing’s management of China’s internal information space has proceeded along similar lines. Pro-Russian, anti-American messages dominate China’s social media landscape (Repnikova and Zhou 2022); a common trope characterizes Ukraine as an abusive and unfaithful wife who stole Russia’s children (Donetsk and Luhansk) to flirt with the US. The only known directive on domestic propaganda prohibits any challenge to China’s official position, bans media from republishing foreign news articles and coverage, and outlaws negative coverage of China–Russia relations as well as “harmful viewpoints that support or adulate the United States” (Wade 2022). This directive has effectively centralized official control of the narrative, even as state media focus primarily on other domestic topics, such as March’s National People’s Congress. Repnikova (2022a, 2022b) attributes Chinese “under-reporting” to a desire to avoid domestic scrutiny of the global controversy over the war, because that could produce unacceptable debate or criticism of China’s position and therefore of party decisions (which, again, may be particularly unwelcome prior to the 20th Party Congress). One survey suggested that Chinese respondents largely accept official framings: they generally supported Russia, believed the claims about US biolabs, and favored a peaceful settlement (Carter Center 2022).2
Official coverage also rarely incorporates Ukrainian government or citizen perspectives (Repnikova 2022a, 6–7), reinforcing the dominance of Russian-sourced or pro-Russian information and viewpoints. When they are discussed, Ukrainians either have little agency or are portrayed as neo-Nazis and US or NATO puppets. Although Chinese rhetoric did not portray the Ukrainian government as neo-Nazi prior to the invasion, officials and state media outlets quickly picked up this language—sometimes in their own wording, and sometimes by retweeting other accounts (Cooper et al. 2022). For example, CGTN (China Global Television Network, a state-run English-language channel) quoted Putin as calling the country’s leadership “terrorists…a gang of drug addicts and neo-Nazis” (Cooper et al. 2022). Xinhua (2022b) has also directly publicized, without critical assessment, Putin’s claims about “de-Nazification.” Coverage often reuses clips from Russian state media, or leans heavily on reporting by correspondents for CCTV, the state-owned broadcaster in Moscow—reporting that uncritically reproduces comments by Russian officials or information provided by Russian state media (Repnikova 2022a, 5). Media portrayals of a lack of Ukrainian agency echo the diplomatic sphere; Xi’s reported proposal in his March phone call with President Biden—that the US and NATO negotiate with Russia over Ukraine, seemingly without the Kyiv government present—emblematizes Beijing’s great-power focus, and its unwillingness to acknowledge Ukraine itself as a key agent in the conflict (Xinhua 2022c).
Beyond rhetoric, what of Chinese diplomatic behavior? Bilateral communications and exchange between Russia and China have remained robust, including at the most senior levels, with a call between Putin and Xi the day after the invasion, and another on Xi’s birthday, in June (S. Lau 2022a; Wei and Sha 2022). Both Xi and foreign minister / state councilor Wang Yi—the latter in a meeting with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov—have echoed talking points about Russia’s “legitimate security concerns” in Europe and restated their commitment to the strategic partnership (FMPRC 2022c). In his April bilateral videoconference with Russian counterparts, Politburo Standing Committee member Li Zhanshu also reaffirmed the partnership, calling it “mature, tenacious, and stable” (Renmin Ribao 2022; cited in Medeiros 2022, 10). Li’s comments in a September 2022 meeting in Moscow were even more explicit, affirming Russia’s “core interests” in Ukraine and offering China’s “understanding and support” (Feng 2022).
Chinese diplomats have also robustly defended and supported Russia in bilateral, regional, and other diplomatic fora, whether with the US, Europe, or the global South. At the April virtual summit with the European Union, for example, China’s support for Russia and strident opposition to sanctions created diplomatic friction and has contributed to a downward slide in relations between China and much of Europe (Cook, Petrequin, and Moritsugu 2022; FMPRC 2022d). And at the BRICS summit in late June, Xi cited Ukraine in his criticisms of “bloc confrontation,” “unilateral sanctions,” and “hegemonism,” all of which are critiques of the American and Western approaches to security in the European and Asian regional settings as well as globally (Associated Press 2022).
In multilateral settings and international institutions, China’s diplomatic actions have leaned toward Moscow, though with considerable free-riding and passivity, especially in higher-profile fora. The PRC abstained from the initial (February 25) UNGA vote condemning Russia’s invasion, essentially opting to free-ride on a Russian veto (and only agreeing to that after the removal of references to Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which refers to threats to international peace and is the chapter under which enforcement actions, such as peacekeeping, are commonly authorized). It similarly abstained from the February 27 call for a UNGA emergency session, which passed (Fromer 2022). China abstained from the UN Human Rights Council vote in early March establishing a commission of inquiry into Russian war crimes, while stating its opposition (Farge 2022). It later (March 23) voted in support of a Russia-sponsored resolution on humanitarian issues in Ukraine, and in April voted—along with 23 other countries—against the UNGA’s decision to suspend Russia from the Human Rights Council. (For a table summarizing these early votes, and China’s position on each, see Medeiros 2022, 11–12.)
In more specialized multilateral settings, Beijing has been more openly supportive of Moscow. For example, it was the only country to vote alongside Russia against an International Atomic Energy Agency Board of Governors resolution that “deplored” Russia’s invasion and urged that Ukraine be allowed to control its own nuclear facilities (Murphy 2022). At the International Court of Justice, Chinese and Russian jurists were the only ones (in a 13-2 ruling) to oppose the court’s order that Russia immediately halt all military action in Ukraine (International Court of Justice 2022). And while Western governments have publicly suggested that Russia be excluded from the G20 summit in Indonesia this November, both Xi Jinping and Wang Yi have weighed in against such “politicization,” with the result that both Zelensky and Putin have been invited (Knox and Anders 2022). Development banks represent a possible exception; the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank—often described as “Chinese-backed,” given Beijing’s significant role in its launch—did pause lending to Russia. However, the bank has a multilateral stakeholder structure, in which NATO and other American allies hold significant voting share, so it is unclear whether this should truly be read as an indicator of China’s stance (Areddy and Qi 2022). In aggregate, China’s behavior in multilateral institutions appears to have been supportive of Russia, but most supportive in settings where visibility and costs are low, and with some free-riding elsewhere to avoid diplomatic isolation.
Diplomatic inaction is also important in assessing China’s position. While Beijing has said it “hopes” for a solution to a crisis that is “not what it wanted to see” (in Wang Yi’s phone call with secretary of state Blinken in March; see also FMPRC 2022d), in contrast to other leaders, it has not taken any visible actions to mediate. Initial readouts from the February 25 phone call between Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin suggested that Beijing supported Russia’s proposal for negotiations, rather than vice versa; Chinese diplomats have since suggested that behind the scenes they have taken a more active role to encourage Moscow (Le 2022; Ni 2022). The government in Kyiv requested a more active Chinese role as mediator and security guarantor for a ceasefire in early May (M. Lau 2022; see also Poita 2022), but Beijing has not pursued or actively engaged with these or other similar proposals, signaling that it sees the issue as a European one, primarily for the US and NATO to resolve with Russia. Beijing has not assigned much if any responsibility to Putin or Russia—compared to the clear, consistent blame it puts on NATO—and has not issued any known warnings of consequences that might meaningfully alter Moscow’s calculus. The PRC has generally stressed a desire to avoid deterioration in humanitarian conditions, and in March agreed to supply a small amount of humanitarian aid (Sha 2022; Xinhua 2022d, 2022e).
In the economic realm, China has been rhetorically supportive of Moscow, while underlying patterns of economic behavior (including both party-state and corporate actors) have been more complex and, typically, self-interested. Official rhetoric from the Chinese party-state has stridently opposed the use of sanctions to pressure Putin to change course (Le 2022), making the issue a major friction point at the virtual summit between China and the EU in early April (Cook, Petrequin, and Moritsugu 2022; FMPRC 2022d). Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian noted that Beijing disapproved of “solving problems through sanctions, and we are even more opposed to unilateral sanctions and long-arm jurisdiction that have no basis in international law” (quoted in Cook, Petrequin, and Moritsugu 2022). Criticism of sanctions has probably come in a close second as a talking point in official rhetoric, behind criticism of NATO and the US. Meanwhile, officials like Li Zhanshu have talked about strengthening China’s bilateral economic relationship with Russia in areas such as infrastructure, energy, and agriculture (Yang and Chu 2022). After an initial post-invasion drop, trade flows have largely rebounded (Chimits and Hmaidi 2022; Chorzempa 2022a; Reuters 2022a), and Chinese companies appear interested in capitalizing on market opportunities left by the Western withdrawal, including by exporting microchips and other components with potential military application (Spegele 2022), so long as these operations do not make them a target of international sanctions. Economic fora have discussed shifts toward de-dollarization, which is growing but still limited (Yang and Chu 2022).
On the other hand, most Chinese entities appear to be complying with sanctions, which is consistent with the fact that China’s economic interests in Europe dwarf bilateral economic relations with Russia and could be jeopardized by obvious sanction backfilling (Huang and Lardy 2022). Compliance has not been unanimous—in June, the US Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security added five Chinese companies to the export control entity list for “providing support to Russia’s military and/or defense-industrial base” (Federal Register 2022)—but sanctions evasion has also not been systematic. Chinese telecommunications operators have continued to provide services in both Ukraine and Russia; whether operations in Russia shrink or not appears to be as much about Russian consumers’ purchasing power as any political factor (Chimits and Hmaidi 2022; Mukherjee and Sterling 2022). In other words, economic self-interest, not political solidarity, explains Chinese actors’ varied decisions.
Finally, the PRC has continued military cooperation with Russia, maintaining a recent increase in joint exercises. In May 2022, during President Biden’s visit to Tokyo for a meeting of Quad leaders, Russia and China sent two Chinese military aircraft (H-6 bombers) and four Russian military aircraft (two fighters and two Tu-95 bombers) over the Sea of Japan and southward. The aircraft crossed the Republic of Korea’s Air Defense Identification Zone, leading both Korea and Japan to dispatch fighter jets; Chinese naval vessels also reportedly participated in the exercise (Wong 2022). In August, Chinese forces also participated in the Russia-hosted Vostok-22 multilateral exercises (Global Times 2022c). Beyond specific exercises, the high-level strategic partnership may have given Russia a broadly enabling perception of its strategic environment, giving Moscow a freer hand to draw troops from the Far East to conduct the invasion, as reported by the Ukrainian government in April (Santora, Arraf, and Levenson 2022).
Steady security cooperation has not meant direct provision of Chinese support for the Russian warfighting effort in Ukraine, however. In late March, US and European leaders raised concerns that China had agreed to supply military aid to Russia, which Beijing denied; no public evidence of direct provision of arms or equipment has followed, making it unclear whether China never intended to supply such items, or rethought its plans once they became public (S. Lau 2022b). Military-security cooperation between Moscow and Beijing, therefore, has remained relatively constant, albeit at levels that were recently increased.
Explaining China’s Response to the Conflict in Ukraine
A number of factors help explain China’s response to the war. The Chinese leadership is trying to balance multiple competing interests, outlined above. Its pattern of behavior likely reflects calculations of the divergent cost–benefit trade-offs of close alignment with Moscow in each of the four domains described; thus far, China has been willing to support Russia, but has done so most in areas and ways that have incurred minimal cost. At least three factors—not mutually exclusive—could nonetheless be shaping Beijing’s broader pattern of response. None, interestingly, predict near-term change or reorientation in that position, despite some early speculation that this might happen.
One reason some analysts thought China might shift course after the war began was the belief that the leadership had been surprised by Moscow’s invasion and its near-term consequences, and had simply been slow to absorb these shocks and recalibrate its interests away from the joint statement. US national security advisor Jake Sullivan, among others, suggested that Russia may not have told China the full extent of its plans in Ukraine, with the implication that Beijing might have been caught off guard by either the invasion or its consequences (Wong and Barnes 2022). Subsequent statements by Chinese officials temporizing on the “no limits” language (Ward 2022) are consistent with the idea that China was surprised and/or unhappy. And even if Chinese leaders were not fully surprised, it is still possible that they are principally focused on domestic issues like the Party Congress and China’s economy, instead of foreign policy; in that case, both they and the bureaucracies below them may not have fully absorbed the external signals generated by the conflict and deliberately considered whether and how to change course. If this is part of the story of official policymaking in China, then one might expect that information revealed by the war (for example, Russia’s poor military performance and the strength of the international reaction) could eventually impel Beijing to recalculate.
At present, however, it is unclear that surprise is a significant factor in China’s response. The Chinese leadership may not have been surprised, or may have been surprised but subsequently decided not to allow that surprise to drive their position on the conflict. The longer Beijing goes without significant recalibration, the more the persuasiveness of the “surprise” hypothesis as an explanation for their behavior declines. Moreover, even if Beijing is surprised and does eventually seek to recalibrate, opportunities to shape world order are not monotonic. If the rest of the world reorganizes in response to the conflict more quickly and perceptions of Chinese support harden, China’s position may become effectively locked in from the outside and preclude Beijing from making changes in the future.
A second explanation for Beijing’s stance has less to do with surprise and more to do with long-standing features of China’s regime type that predispose it to inflexibility once a policy course is set. Personalist authoritarian regimes tend to be information-sclerotic and avoid delivering bad news and negative feedback to leaders, even when that information seems obvious to an outside observer (Chestnut Greitens 2016; Taussig 2017; Woods and Stout 2010). As Xi has increasingly concentrated personal power in himself (Minzner 2016; Shirk 2018), information flows in China may have become constrained, hampering rational updating of policies and sharply constraining debate over official policy directions. If this factor is a significant driver of China’s position, Xi’s personal imprimatur on the February 4 joint statement may have locked Beijing into a major strategic alignment that, for reasons of regime and leadership security, it cannot now undo. It may not be politically feasible before the Party Congress, or even until a change in the top leadership.
A third explanation is that China’s position has been largely determined by its overarching orientation toward competition with and opposition to the US. The backdrop of deterioration of the US–China bilateral relationship across military, economic, technological, and human rights spheres in the past five years or so likely placed a ceiling on Beijing’s willingness to join Washington in criticizing Moscow, regardless of how much Russia’s invasion violated international norms and Chinese principles. Beyond that, however, the February 4 joint statement reveals clear parallels in Russia’s and China’s views of their common security threats and, correspondingly, willingness to cooperate against “external influence” on their periphery. Xi’s affirmation in June 2022 of “the legitimacy of the actions taken by Russia to protect the fundamental national interests in the face of challenges to its security created by external forces” (quoted in Wei and Sha 2022) suggests that this perception is significant in Beijing’s thinking, as does the consistency of Chinese rhetoric blaming the US and NATO for the conflict.
In this sense, Chinese support for Russia is predicated on a shared view of the “principal contradiction,”3 one oriented around the need to counter the US and its allies and partners, who ring the Eurasian landmass from NATO in the west to the American alliance structure in Asia in the east (Cohen 2022). From China’s standpoint, Russia is a useful partner in opposing the US and diluting American focus and resources; there is no reason Beijing should help solve American strategic dilemmas or trade-offs between commitments to Europe and Asia if the result would be to concentrate Washington’s focus and resources on strategic competition with China. As state media host Liu Xin (2022) tweeted, “Can you help me fight your friend so I can concentrate on fighting you later?” (see also Chan 2022, in this volume, for a version of this argument). It is not yet clear how difficult the trade-offs between American defense investments in Europe and Asia will actually be: some analysts emphasize that the forces required to contribute to European security are quite different from those required in Asia (for example, in terms of land versus naval forces), while others see the trade-offs as more acute (noting, for example, that prepositioning munitions and other equipment on Taiwan will be more difficult if those stockpiles have been allocated to Europe and the defense-industrial base cannot manufacture enough to resupply quickly). Only time—and some yet-to-be-made policy choices in Washington and other capitals—will determine which of these assessments is correct.
Ukraine has also become a key data point in broader Chinese arguments about the inadequacy of current regional security architecture and global security governance, as well as in Beijing’s critiques of the US-led alliance system. As Repnikova (2022a) notes, China has had a tendency to subsume Ukraine-specific complaints about the US into its larger narrative of critique of the US and the US-led global security order. This suggests that Beijing is leveraging the conflict to support its previous messaging about the US worldwide, as well as to advance Chinese foreign policy priorities like Beijing’s call for revision of global security governance—a call that has become increasingly prominent over the last few years, and that forms a key component of Xi’s Global Security Initiative, announced shortly after the invasion of Ukraine in April 2022 (Chestnut Greitens 2022b). The critique offered by the PRC is that the current global security order, especially the US-led alliance system in Europe and Asia, promotes security for actors in its network of alliances and partnerships at the expense of those outside it; China offers frameworks like the Global Security Initiative as an alternative grounded in “indivisible security.” And Russia plays a specific role in this call for revision of international order; senior Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi, for example, noted in autumn 2022 the PRC’s willingness to cooperate with Russia to “safeguard common interests and promote the development of the international order in a more just and reasonable direction” (quoted in Bloomberg 2022). Partnership with Russia, therefore, is in China’s interest because—and so long as—it enhances the party-state’s ability to revise international order in ways favorable to Beijing; it is a specific policy choice that is subsumed within the larger project of order competition with Washington.
If the foregoing is an accurate encapsulation of China’s strategic thinking, with or without reinforcement from domestic politics, these shared interests may make the China–Russia partnership quite durable, even if is not always entirely comfortable. It also means, however, that China will support Russia according to its own interest calculus, with limited willingness to make costly sacrifices simply for the sake of the partnership—as indeed China’s behavior in the economic realm, in particular, would seem to corroborate.
The Taiwan Factor in China’s Response
One final, important factor shaping China’s response to the current war in Ukraine is how Beijing thinks that conflict might affect future tensions or conflict scenarios over Taiwan. While the PRC has rejected some comparisons between the two, it sees both as arguments against the US-led alliance system. And Beijing is watching the military, economic, and diplomatic dimensions of the Ukraine conflict closely to extract lessons for Taiwan—a challenge it views as crucial to its security as well as to the task of national rejuvenation.
The parallelism of the February 4 joint statement primed global audiences not only to analogize between Ukraine in Europe and Taiwan in Asia, but also to believe that China sees them as comparable regional challenges. Once the conflict broke out, however, China began to stridently disavow the comparability and emphasize the differences (Hua 2022b). In March 2022, when Admiral John Aquilino (commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command) said that Ukraine “underscored the serious threat that China poses to Taiwan,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry replied that “Taiwan is an inalienable part of the Chinese territory and is fundamentally different from Ukraine, which is a sovereign state” (both quoted in Global Times 2022a). In April, in reply to an op-ed by Taiwan representative Hsiao Bi-khim, the Chinese embassy said, “The Taiwan question is not about ‘democracy versus authoritarianism,’ but about secession versus anti-secession” (quoted in Global Times 2022b). Beijing therefore links Ukraine to its argument against an “Asian NATO” (Le 2022) even as it rejects the comparability of Ukraine and Taiwan as focal points for potential conflict in their respective regional security environments.
Numerous pieces have now raised questions about what lessons can and should be drawn from Ukraine for Taiwan (Baron 2022; Herzinger 2022; Hornung 2022; Horton 2022; Templeman 2022). Concern over what the international community should learn from Ukraine for a potential Taiwan crisis or conflict has probably been especially acute given increasing concern about recent People’s Liberation Army (PLA) activities in the Taiwan Strait—including an important set of exercises in August 2022 following the visit of Nancy Pelosi, US Speaker of the House of Representatives, to Taipei (Glaser and Culver 2022)—and ongoing debate over Beijing’s intentions and timeline for unification. Indeed, Taiwan and Ukraine have some obvious similarities. Both are smaller, nonnuclear powers under serious military threat from conventionally superior nuclear powers. Both are Western-oriented democracies facing authoritarian opponents who seek to incorporate part or all of their territory and who see their independent existence as illegitimate. And both are in regions distant from the US, without a formal security guarantee from the US or other great powers to ensure their survival (though Templeman 2022 notes key differences in the nature of the security commitments, especially those codified in the Taiwan Relations Act of 1979).
The war in Ukraine could, therefore, offer important lessons. It demonstrated a particular utility for American and Western intelligence diplomacy, for both strategic warning and preconflict coalition-building (Abdalla et al. 2022; Harrington 2022; Mehta 2022). It has pointed out some of the key shortcomings of Taiwan’s defense concept, including in procurement and manpower/reserve mobilization (Blanchard 2022; Lee and Hunzeker 2022. (Many of these concerns have been debated for years, but the Ukraine conflict has broadened and spotlighted them, creating new urgency.) It also suggested the efficacy of certain security force assistance, including the State Partnership Program, which Taiwan recently announced it would join (Barno and Bensahel 2022; Reuters 2022c). The failure of Russian political warfare to produce capitulation from the Ukrainian population or key subnational political leaders (Ball and Brown 2022; Reynolds and Watling 2022), combined with the Russian military’s poor performance (Freedman 2022; Kofman and Lee 2022), offer some confirmation of conventional wisdom about personalist authoritarianism generating misestimation, information problems, and degraded battlefield performance, which could be relevant for China’s increasingly personalized authoritarian system. And finally, the conflict in Ukraine has offered important—if currently incomplete—lessons on the speed, extent, and pathway to impact of various types of international sanctions, an issue that China had already been considering in steps such as its Anti-Foreign Sanctions Law of 2021 (Chen and Liu 2021; Feng 2021). All of these are issues that China—not to mention the US, Taiwan, and the international community—will be analyzing carefully in the months and years ahead.
Any lessons drawn from Ukraine for a Taiwan conflict, however, must be transferred to and applied in a very different geographic and political context. Ukraine is approximately the size of Texas, with a population of 44 million; Taiwan is closer to the size of Maryland, and much more densely populated (23 million). The physical environments are different: Ukraine is a land conflict, whereas Taiwan would be a maritime one, which would affect everything from actual military operations, to noncombatant evacuation and humanitarian assistance, to logistics and resupply. To take just one example, there is no Polish land border across which to bring a steady flow of weapons after conflict has begun (Herzinger 2022). China and Russia have different nuclear doctrines, though the PRC’s doctrine could evolve to more closely resemble Russia’s by the time any potential conflict began (Talmadge 2022). In terms of regional security architecture, Europe has NATO as a multilateral transatlantic alliance, whereas the American alliance system in Asia is a bilateral, hub-and-spokes arrangement. Even though regional cooperation has grown in recent years, the hub-and-spokes model might make mobilizing American allies in the event of a crisis over Taiwan difficult, with each ally able to make separate calculations about its own interests and willingness to participate (Cooper and Chestnut Greitens 2022). Finally, the PLA and PRC leadership will benefit from observing Russian mistakes in planning and executing the initial phase of conflict, perhaps helping them avoid similar mistakes. Analysts have already noted, for example, that the PLA may learn from Ukraine the need to avoid a protracted conflict, pushing it to attack with more force quickly to decide the outcome before external support for Taiwan could be brought to bear.
Diplomatically, too, there are important differences. Taiwan is not recognized officially by most states as a sovereign country, and does not have a seat in the UN from which its ambassador could plead its case. Beijing may therefore be able to persuade some segment of the international community that the norms of sovereignty and territorial integrity are not under threat in Taiwan in the way they have been in Ukraine. China’s attempts to frame Taiwan as a “secession” issue may be, as Chan (2022, this volume) notes, not just a broad framing issue but a specific attempt to use American objections to Russia’s recognition of Donetsk and Luhansk as a precedent to block global recognition of “separatism” in Taiwan. China is also far more enmeshed with the global economy than Russia is, making the consequences of sanctions and other economic punishment more complicated and severe, and the sanctions themselves probably harder to implement, especially on a multilateral basis. Finally, there are differences in both political leadership and the effects of regime type. Tsai Ing-wen, or whoever Taiwan’s next leader is, may or may not be able to galvanize public opinion in the way Volodymyr Zelensky has for Ukraine. And Zelensky’s invocation of democracy has been an effective mobilizational frame in a region (Europe) that is largely democratic; it is not clear that his success in marshalling support there could be replicated in Asia, which has far more regime heterogeneity. The implication is that neither appeals to territorial integrity and sovereignty on one hand, nor to democracy and freedom on the other, are likely to work as well in Asia as in Europe, and that mobilizing regional and global support for Taiwan in the event of a conflict could be more difficult.
It is probably too early to say what lessons Beijing will draw from the conflict in Ukraine, whether for military operations, diplomatic strategy, or counter-sanctions economic insulation. How this learning process unfolds inside China will be important for analysts to watch and assess with precision and in detail in the coming years. Observers should take care, however, to avoid mirroring errors, and must form assessments of what China is learning from what they actually see from/in Beijing, rather than assuming that Chinese actors are drawing the same inferences from the crisis as external observers are. Nevertheless, it is clear that the implications of the war in Ukraine for a future crisis or conflict over Taiwan have already shaped China’s evolving response to the ongoing conflict, and will almost certainly continue to do so.
In the war’s opening months, Beijing has been most supportive of Russia in the informational and (secondarily) diplomatic arenas, while its economic posture has varied according to self-interest, and military cooperation has continued at a relatively steady level. Despite periodic speculation in media, pundit, and policy circles that China might change course and lessen its support for Russia, Beijing appears to think that it has found a sustainable pathway. Full-throated rhetorical-informational and diplomatic support, combined with a consistent level of ongoing military cooperation and more self-interested economic behavior, have become consistent characteristics of its approach to the conflict. Beijing’s stance on the war in Ukraine appears to be determined largely by its perceived need to counter and oppose the US; many of its criticisms draw on broader, pre-existing criticisms of regional security architecture in Europe and Asia, and specifically of the role of the US alliance system. These critiques also play into PRC efforts to develop and offer alternative normative frameworks for global security governance and international order, thereby advancing broader Chinese foreign policy and security interests. Domestic politics inside the PRC, and how the Chinese party-state thinks the unfolding conflict in Ukraine could shape or affect a future Taiwan crisis, also appear to have informed Beijing’s response thus far. As a result of all these factors, Beijing has been broadly supportive of Moscow, though there are limits to the price Beijing has been willing to pay in the process.
What have been the initial impacts on China of its position on Ukraine? Have these impacts been beneficial, or a net positive, for the PRC? The answer is unclear, in part because it depends on which part of the world one talks about, meaning that the aggregate effect is not yet easy to determine. In Russia, China’s position has been perceived as setting (potentially disappointing) limits on the Beijing–Moscow partnership (Wishnick 2022). In Europe, China’s post-invasion support for Russia—and, potentially, its use of global messaging without much consideration of or adaptation to local context—has hardened many European countries’ and publics’ negative views, further degrading opinions on China in places where they were already low (Bermingham 2022; Karaskova et al. 2022; Silver et al. 2022). This has, in some cases, produced concrete policy change; the NATO Strategic Concept issued in June devoted more space to transatlantic cooperation on challenges posed by China than any previous version (NATO 2022). And although the Ukrainian government has continued to be careful in how it characterizes China’s position, perhaps out of continued hope that Beijing could play a constructive role in persuading Russia to change course, the war has increased the number of Ukrainian citizens who perceive China as a threat, and many experts now see China’s position as “directly or indirectly harming Ukrainian interests” (Poita 2022).
In the Global South, however, China’s messages may be finding a more receptive audience, as Beijing has sought to use the conflict to highlight concerns it shares with developing countries, while also promoting its own Global Development Initiative and Global Security Initiative to the developing world (Rolland 2022). It is difficult to systematically assess how successful these efforts have been; leaders in Brazil and South Africa have echoed PRC talking points, while countries like India have been much more skeptical (Medeiros 2022; Repnikova 2022a). Systematic polling data in many of these countries remains very limited, and has not yet been updated to reflect the war’s impact. This suggests a future imperative to disaggregate and systematically measure not only how China’s position on Ukraine might (or might not) be evolving, but also how its position is impacting global perceptions of its foreign policy and its role in Asia and the world.
Published online: October 21, 2022
In a Weibo post (https://m.weibo.cn/status/4743320535829925).
It is difficult to ascertain the accuracy of these survey results, or whether they are a driver or effect of media/elite framing of the conflict.