Ukraine’s Chinese characteristics

Today’s FT headline reads “China offers role as peacemaker”. The article says more carefully “China signalled it was ready to play a role in finding a ceasefire in Ukraine…” But would it be a trusted impartial negotiator?

At the Olympic Games last month, Presidents Putin and Xi said that friendship between their countries had “no limits” and no “forbidden” areas of cooperation. Beijing has joined Moscow in opposing further NATO expansion.

Since then, even if Beijing has refused to term President Putin’s assault on Ukraine as an “invasion”, it has been profoundly uneasy about Russian recklessness.

Clearly this is because of China’s unequivocal stance on sovereignty and territorial integrity concerning Taiwan, used as an excuse as well to justify its claims in the South and East China Seas which they are asserting militarily.

Hence China’s abstentions at the UN Security Council twice on the invasion of Ukraine. And comments by China’s Foreign Policy Chief Wang Yi just before the invasion at the Munich Security Conference about the importance of maintaining territorial integrity “including Ukraine’s”.

China’s fence-sitting so far allows it to take advantage of the current situation where it can: the famous win-win situation quoted often by Chinese leaders which many interpret as China wanting to have it both or all ways.

China has declared itself to be generally against countries imposing sanctions. Nevertheless, realpolitik has meant that Chinese state-owned financial institutions are reported to have been distancing themselves from Russia’s struggling economy. Open violation of sanctions could jeopardise China’s access to the still US dollar-centric international financial system.

Instead, we can expect Beijing to continue to support the Russian economy quietly through the Chinese financial system and helping itself to some good deals, such as the 19.75% or US$ 14bn stake given up by BP in Rosneft and Shell in Gazprom. Russia will be even more beholden to China with which – it should not be forgotten – it has not always had good relations historically.

Russia’s invasion will also reinforce the message in the minds of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) again how unreliable and foolhardy Russian leadership can be.  The CCP has long used the collapse of the Soviet Union and its ruling Communist Party as the case study of how the CCP should avoid such mistakes to stay in power. Putin’s actions, risking the downfall of the whole current Russian elite, will be a stark reminder for China not to get too close to Russia politically. The venality of the current Russian elite is a stark reminder to the CCP as well of the need to keep fighting corruption back home to ensure its own longevity.

So Taiwan seems relatively safe for now. China is watching carefully how the Ukraine tragedy evolves, especially the unexpected increasing determination of the West, in terms of how it might in turn be resolute on Taiwan if a crisis occurred. As Taiwan would be much more militarily costly to take for China than Ukraine ought to be for Russia, China will continue to try political means and military pressure on Taiwan which will thankfully not go very far in persuading the ruling liberal DPP Government to change course.

Above all, President Xi needs stability at home to have the 20th Party Congress approve an unprecedented third term for him as President of China at the end of this year. China would not want international volatility created by Russian adventurism to “infect” that.


* George Cunningham has been elected to the FIRC 2023-25. He is Chair of the FIRC Subcommittee on China, Chair of Lib Dems Abroad and a Lib Dem member of ALDE Council.

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