Which multipolar partner: Russia or Europe? China’s Ukraine dilemma

Richard McMahon explores Chinese narratives of political relations between Russia, Europe and the US and how they frame Russia’s war on Ukraine. This article draws on Dr McMahon’s research on Chinese scholarly representations of the EU.

Decisions taken in Beijing could decisively impact Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. China is the world’s second greatest economic and military power and Russia’s biggest trade partner by far, especially since the latest round of Western sanctions.

Russia and China have built an increasingly close relationship around common resistance to Western or American hegemony. Russia has become China’s most important arms dealer and supplier of fossil fuels. China condemned Western sanctions punishing Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, and in 2018, participated in a Russian military exercise. On 4 February this year, as Putin massed his invasion force on Ukraine’s border, he attended the Winter Olympics in Beijing and signed an unprecedented agreement with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. This set ‘no limits, no forbidden areas of cooperation’ to Sino-Russian friendship, listing opposition to NATO enlargement among numerous points of agreement.

Editorials on the subject of Putin’s invasion in two Chinese Communist Party newspapers, People’s Daily and Global Times, reveal a coherent narrative which blames the invasion on a war-hungry America whose military-industrial complex fuelled the conflict by pumping arms into Ukraine.

Despite all this, Chinese narratives of the EU may help preserve Beijing’s carefully calibrated neutrality on the Putin invasion.

US culpability

An academic commentator in People’s Daily placed ‘the Ukrainian leadership’ second in the hierarchy of responsibility after the US, followed by the EU and, finally, Russia. Another People’s Daily editorial describes ‘US-led NATO’ as warmongering ‘Cancer cells of international conflicts’ and ‘a villain in the international community’, whose wars for ‘“America First” and “Western supremacy”’ have created ‘tens of millions’ of refugees. A Global Times editorial listed ‘US/NATO interventions in recent decades’, starting with Guatemala and Cuba in the 1950s.

Other editorials explain America’s aim as a ‘New Cold War’, resurrecting ‘rival-bloc mentality’ and simplifying the ‘pluralistic world’ of great powers competition down to mere ideological confrontation. This allows Western military interventions to be conflated with NATO ‘repeatedly orchestrating “color revolutions” in countries bordering Russia and other zones of core interest to Russia’.

Xinhua state news agency argued that the US had ‘incessantly squeezed Russia’s security space’ in ‘utter disregard of Russia’s legitimate concerns… until a military conflict broke out between Russia and Ukraine’. No subject is needed in this passive mood sentence: geopolitical physics launches the conflict automatically.

Striking a balance between Russia and the West

China, however, officially insists it is ‘not a party to the crisis’. It abstained on the 2 March UN General assembly resolution condemning the invasion. It has repeatedly called for Ukraine and Russia to resolve the dispute peacefully. The Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi has spoken twice with his Ukrainian counterpart since the invasion, lamenting the conflict, expressing extreme concern about harm to civilians and insisting that Ukraine’s territory and sovereignty should be respected. China’s ambassador promised help, especially economic.

China almost always condemns Western sanctions, including those targeting Russia’s invasion, and, for the most part, claims to continue ‘normal economic and trade cooperation’ with Russia.  Nevertheless, Wang admits that he ‘doesn’t want the sanctions to affect China’ and some evidence suggests limited Chinese compliance – for example on aircraft parts and by the Chinese central bank and the China-dominated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

Editorials strike a balance between Russian and Western descriptions of the invasion. Putin can be pleased that editorials almost never call it an invasion or war. They often discuss the ‘Ukraine crisis’, downgrading its seriousness and downplaying Russia’s involvement. However, the most common term, ‘Russia-Ukraine conflict’, is less comfortable for Russia.

The end of unipolar hegemony; balancing alliances in a unipolar world

In this European conflict, a powerful Chinese narrative about Europe as a partner in creating a multipolar world may help explain China’s qualified support for its close partner, Russia.

It derives from the core Communist Party narrative of Chinese history, in which China, by founding the People’s Republic in 1949, ‘stood up’ after a ‘century of humiliation’ at the hands of the European colonial powers and Japan. The communist regime did not want to abolish this great power concert, however. It wanted to join it. The key obstacle was America’s ‘unipolar hegemony’. As a South China Morning Post editorial argued, the ‘Warmongering US will have to accept a new world order with China, Russia and the EU alongside’.

This narrative also draws on neorealist geopolitical physics. The EU eastern enlargements of 2004-13 especially convinced many Chinese that Europe was a ‘rising power’, which would quasi-automatically balance with China against the American unipolar hegemony. America would naturally try to poison this emerging Sino-European friendship and weaken Europe so that it remained dependent on Washington.

Chinese editorials therefore rarely criticise Europeans. They say the US ‘dragged Europe into this dangerous quagmire’ and New Cold War. Whereas the Ukraine conflict was ‘nearly painless’ for the US, Europe suffered ‘increasingly acute’ pain from soaring prices, insecurity and refugees. Weakening the EU ‘also serves U.S. interest’, especially after the ‘botched withdrawal from Afghanistan’, by delaying the inevitable ‘ending’ of the ‘American era’.

Putin’s invasion therefore creates a horrible dilemma for the core Chinese geopolitical narrative. It pits against one another China’s two key partners in overthrowing American unipolar hegemony and re-enthroning China within a nineteenth-century style concert of great powers. Small wonder that Beijing does not unequivocally support Moscow.

Dr Richard McMahon is Associate Lecturer in EU Politics at UCL’s Department of Political Science.

The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

Photo credit: Shutterstock Stock Photo ID: 2109060899

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