Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been condemned by the Secretary General of the United Nations. Prime Minister Fumio Kishida says Japan will “demonstrate the strong will of the international community uniting against Russia.”
But China’s response is far more ambivalent.
We asked Duncan Bartlett, Editor of Asian Affairs and a regular contributor to Japan Forward, to explain. Excerpts follow.
Has China supported or encouraged the Russian invasion of Ukraine?
I doubt that Beijing wanted Russia to invade its neighbor and spark an international crisis. Nevertheless, I notice that China is avoiding being openly critical of the move. For example, Zhang Jun, the Chinese ambassador to the United Nations, has called on all parties involved in the crisis to remain restrained and avoid escalating the situation any further.
He said that “China believes that the door to a peaceful solution to the Ukraine issue has not been completely closed.” He also said China will continue to promote peace and talks in its own way.
Does that mean China intends to take a diplomatic role?
It gives the impression that China understands why Russia invaded Ukraine. For example, his statement also says the world needs to appreciate Russia’s security concerns.
China says that the Ukraine issue has a complex history and the current situation is the result of “the combined effect of various factors.” However, most other countries maintain that this is a clear example of the invasion of a sovereign nation in breach of international law.
So are Russia and China allies?
They are not formal allies, although they do see eye-to-eye on a number of issues and there is an understanding between China and Russia that they will support each other in times of trouble. They describe their relationship as a “comprehensive strategic partnership”.
Earlier in February, when President Putin visited Beijing for the 2022 Winter Olympics, he witnessed the signing of many deals with China, including an additional supply of 100 million tons of crude oil from Rosneft Oil Company to China, as well as a new gas-supply deal with Gazprom.
So if the rest of the world stops buying Russian energy, will it simply sell more to China?
My view is that China’s cooperation with Russia in the energy sector will continue and China may well become the largest buyer of Russian energy exports.
The likelihood is that other countries will treat Russia as a pariah and not buy its oil and gas. And that is one of the causes behind the spike in energy prices. However, there are many factors which affect energy prices – including supply.
So it will be interesting to see how countries in the Gulf respond. Saudi Arabia’s response will be important in terms of the direction of global energy prices. Although China does source a lot of energy from Russia, China imports more crude oil from Saudi Arabia than it does from Russia.
Are both Russia and China using this situation to make life difficult for the United States?
One issue on which China and Russia align is their opposition to the expansion of NATO. They maintain, somewhat implausibly, that the reason Russia has security concerns is because Ukraine has been considering joining NATO in order to side against Russia.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying slammed the United States as “the culprit of current tensions” and criticized Washington for sending weapons to Ukraine.
So how do Chinese people see Russia?
People in China spend a lot of time studying Russia’s history and the mistakes of its 20th century leaders. The Chinese Communist Party believes it can learn from the demise of the USSR and maintain its own power by taking a tougher approach towards political dissidents and the media.
It was this thinking that led to the clampdown on Hong Kong. Some people in China view Russia as a declining power and believe it has a poor international reputation. By contrast, China wants to position itself as an promotor of global development and an upholder of norms.
If the world sanctions Russia, will China uphold the norms by also backing the sanctions?
I don’t believe it will. China has little respect for sanctions against North Korea, for example. And that’s why I think China insists on calling for “restraint” and “dialogue” to solve the Ukraine issue.
However, it seems too late for that now. President Putin has made a diplomatic solution impossible.
China always says it doesn’t interfere in the internal political affairs of other countries. How does it justify Russia’s action in Ukraine?
In my view the attack on Ukraine using tanks and missiles is as stark an example of interfering in another country’s internal affairs as it is possible to find.
Another concern is that if Russia does take control of Ukraine, it could embolden China to become more aggressive.
Do you mean China might attack and invade Taiwan?
Politicians in the United States have been suggesting that unless the world stands up to Russia, it could give China a chance to expand its influence in Asia. In other words, with the US and Europe preoccupied with Russia, China could attack Taiwan.
China says this is scare-mongering. However it does have plans to unify Taiwan with the People’s Republic Of China, peacefully if possible but by force if necessary.
Some people fear that with the world’s attention focussed on Ukraine, this might be an opportunity for Beijing to act.
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- Prediction: Russia to Invade Eastern Ukraine Come Winter Olympics 2022
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Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs and a regular contributor to Japan Forward. He is a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute, University of London.