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INTERVIEW | Keio Professor Yuichi Hosoya: China Is the Big Winner in the Ukraine War

Professor Yuichi Hosoya explains why China's goals for the Ukraine war are to isolate the US, stay friendly with Russia, and grow support in the Global South.



Russia's President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with China's Director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Wang Yi in Moscow, Russia on February 22, 2023. (© Sputnik/Anton Novoderezhkin/Pool via Reuters)

In an interview with the Sankei Shimbun and JAPAN Forward, Keio University professor Yuichi Hosoya discusses how China launched a public opinion war to spread support for its regime, particularly in the Global South.

He concludes that Beijing's goal is to portray the United States as an instigator of international conflict, unworthy to be called a leader of democratic countries. Meanwhile, the regime employs deft diplomacy to ensure that China will emerge unscathed regardless of who wins the war.

Excerpts of Professor Hosoya's remarks in the interview follow.

Yuichi Hosoya
Professor Yuichi Hosoya

February 24 marked the first anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. It is hard to predict which party will ultimately win the Ukraine war. However, looking back over the past year, the biggest winner will likely be neither of the belligerents, Ukraine and Russia, nor even the United States, but China. In short, the US finds itself being toyed with by China's cunning diplomacy.

When the war broke out, China was a loser. Twenty days before Russia launched its attack, President Xi Jinping held talks with Russian president Vladimir Putin. The two sides issued a statement boasting of their bilateral "no limits friendship." 

Since Beijing is determined to thwart Taiwan's independence, China has not explicitly endorsed Russia's annexation of certain regions in Ukraine. But it has also refrained from criticizing Russia. Within the international community initially, it was viewed as complicit in the aggression.

China Keeps Russia at Arm's Length

However, the Beijing leadership under Xi has since changed course, noticeably distancing China from Russia. One manifestation of this was the joint declaration opposing the use or threatened use of nuclear weapons issued at the China-Germany summit in November 2022. Putin had suggested Russia might use nuclear weapons if its existence as a state was at stake. But the joint declaration represented a distinctly different position. 

China's course correction was probably prompted by the full-fledged counteroffensive launched by Ukraine beginning last September. The scenario of a quick Russian victory had gone badly awry, and the prospects of a one-sided Russian victory plummeted. Instead, Russia intensified its attacks on civilians, and China found it very difficult to openly support Russia. 

In January, a high-rise house in Dnipro was destroyed by a Russian military missile, killing many residents. The house used to stand in the middle of these two buildings. (© Sankei by Ryosuke Kawaguchi)

Beijing Aims to Isolate the United States

Having changed course, China's strategic goal regarding the war in Ukraine has become to undermine the international standing of the United States and isolate that country, thereby ending US hegemony. 

US President Joe Biden has characterized the war as a "battle between democracy and autocracy." But for China, it is nothing more than an interstate war between Russia and Ukraine. China will not be threatened no matter which side wins. 

Meanwhile, the Biden administration released its National Security Strategy in October 2022. Although not desirous of military conflict, it termed China as the "only competitor" with the desire and, increasingly, the ability to reshape the international order. 

The US-China confrontation has come to define the basic structure of global affairs. China believes that it will be difficult to cooperate with the US in the short term. Therefore, it concluded that the focus of confrontation should be in the non-military domain. For that reason, it would like to ensure that it enjoys an environment advantageous in terms of economic security. It aims, therefore, to gain an advantage in the "battle of public opinion" being waged within the international community.

china military
Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, China on February 4, 2022. (© Sputnik/Aleksey Druzhinin/Kremlin via Reuters)

The War of Public Opinion

Specifically, as the war in Ukraine continues, China has been chasing "three hares" at once. The first is to expand criticism of the US. The second is to maintain its friendship with Russia. The third is to grow support for China in the "Global South" (consisting of developing countries, especially in the southern hemisphere).

China's friendship with Russia has held steady. Even though it might distance itself somewhat, the fact is that China still needs Russia. That is because, in the event of a Taiwan crisis, Russia would be the only permanent member of the UN Security Council that China could count on for support. 

Beijing has reaped great benefits by intensifying criticism of the US and growing support for China in the Global South. China has been waging its own "war of public opinion" in which it labels the US as the main cause of international conflicts, including the war in Ukraine, and portrays China as seeking peace. It is working hard to spread these claims, especially in the Global South.

In December 2022, Xi visited Saudi Arabia where he attended a summit with leaders of Arab countries and sought to strengthen China's relations with the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is a linchpin of the US Mideast strategy, but recently relations between the two nations have deteriorated. 

China military
President Xi Jinping attends the opening ceremony of the National People's Congress of China at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 5, 2023. (© Xinhua via Kyodo )

China Gaining Support in Global South

The summit was emblematic of China's growing support in the Global South. Also notable was how at this month's Munich Security Conference, French president Emmanuel Macron declared himself "shocked by how much credibility we are losing in the Global South." Thus, we can declare China the "winner" over the past year. 

February 24 was the first anniversary of the start of Russia's invasion. On this day, China unveiled a "peace plan" which called for the resumption of direct dialogue between Russia and Ukraine as well as an immediate ceasefire. China also indicated that it was prepared to continue to play a "constructive role." 

Nonetheless, China is not at present making any serious moves to promote peace, since conditions are favorable to it at the moment. If the conflict drags out, Russia's power will further weaken and it will become more dependent on China. Its "peace offensive," along with its criticism of the US, is part of its "public opinion war" to expand support for China in the Global South. 

One year after the invasion of Ukraine, barricades are placed on the side of the road in Independence Square, Kyiv. February 24 (© Sankei by Ryosuke Kawaguchi)

A Shifting Dichotomy

Viewed in terms of the dichotomy of "the battle between democracy and autocracy," China and Russia are the principal authoritarian powers. Thus, many people simply see China as supporting Russia, making it difficult to comprehend China's actual stance. The fact is the main emphasis in China's diplomacy is not "values" but rather a balance of power.

Moreover, a viewpoint framed in terms of dichotomy assumes that the nations of the international community are mostly democratic or on the way to becoming democratic, and will therefore accept US leadership.

But the Global South is already an influential and proactive actor on the stage of international politics. It does not want to be regarded as a "space" to be contended over or an "object" belonging to any camp. China has been deftly manipulating this sentiment. 

The preexisting dichotomic alignment pitting a "democratic camp" versus an "autocratic camp" has been changing over the past year. Japan must respond to these new conditions. 

About Yuichi Hosoya 

Currently a professor of international politics at Keio University in Tokyo, he served as a member of the Prime Minister's Advisory Panel on National Security and Defense Capabilities under former prime minister Shinzo Abe and an advisor to Japan's National Security Council (NSC) among other positions. Professor Hosoya received his PhD from the Faculty of Law at Keio University. 


Interview by: Hideo Miyashita