How China’s dilemma over Ukraine may loom large at key political gathering

  • Beijing is in a difficult position, caught between Russia and the West, but experts say it’s unlikely to condemn the invasion or give full support to Moscow
  • The crisis is expected to be among the issues addressed when Foreign Minister Wang Yi gives his annual news conference during the National People’s Congress

Thousands of China’s political elite converge on Beijing each year for the “two sessions”, the country’s biggest annual political meetings. In the first of a series on this year’s agenda, we look at how the Ukraine crisis may loom large.

As calls mount for China to try to dissuade Russia from attacking Ukraine, Beijing is facing a dilemma that could overshadow its annual legislative session that begins on Saturday.

Caught between Russia and the West, China is unlikely to condemn the invasion but it is also not expected to give its full support to Moscow, an important strategic partner, according to experts.

Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the full-scale invasion of Ukraine last week, the biggest ground war in Europe since World War II. It came just weeks after Beijing and Moscow agreed to push forward their “strategic partnership without limits” in the face of increasing acrimony from the West.

China – which frequently states its foreign policy stand of non-interference – has been cautious in its response to the Ukraine crisis. It is trying to balance efforts to be “a responsible global power” with a growing alliance with Russia and ties with Ukraine – a key supplier of grain and corn which has also provided military technology to China.

Since the invasion, Beijing has twice abstained from voting on a UN Security Council resolution demanding that Russia stop its attack on Ukraine.

Speaking by phone to Putin on Friday, President Xi Jinping said Russia should negotiate with Ukraine, and that the security concerns “of all countries” should be valued and respected. But in a veiled swipe at the United States, he also said “Cold War mentality” should be abandoned.

Shi Yinhong, an international relations expert at Renmin University of China, said that as the Ukraine crisis deepened, Beijing would find itself in a more difficult position.

“The world is going to be further polarised and confrontations between China and Russia against the US and the West will continue and even escalate,” Shi said. “It will significantly reduce China’s strategic and policy leeway while the challenges grow.”

He said Beijing was unlikely to support Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine nor directly challenge Western sanctions on Russia. “China will do what it can to help Russia, which is in economic and financial distress.”

On the day Putin authorised what he called a “special military operation” in Ukraine, China announced it had lifted restrictions on Russian wheat imports. That was followed by Gazprom saying on Monday it had signed a contract to design a new natural gas pipeline to China via Mongolia which, if it goes ahead, will be the Russian energy giant’s biggest deal with China.

Beijing has clearly expressed its position on some issues, according to Li Mingjiang, an associate professor at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“For example, it respected Russia’s security concerns and opposed the enlargement of Nato,” Li said. “Meanwhile it has been vague on Russia’s use of force and on the invasion, but this strategy has not been that successful.”

Renmin University’s Shi said tensions between China and the West could worsen over the Ukraine crisis. “But significant deterioration is unlikely as long as Beijing stands firm on its position,” he said. “It is very clear to the US and Europe that they can’t expect much from China.”

Ukraine is expected to be among the issues addressed when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi delivers his annual news conference on Monday during the National People’s Congress. He is also likely to shed some light on how Beijing intends to navigate its intense rivalry with Washington, in a speech that will be closely watched.

It will follow US President Joe Biden’s first State of the Union address on Tuesday, when he said the United States and China were engaged in a race to “win the economic competition of the 21st century”. Biden also said US success in competing for the “jobs of the future” would depend on securing a “level playing field with China and other competitors”.

Pang Zhongying, a professor of international studies at Ocean University of China, said Beijing was likely to maintain a “pragmatic” approach in dealing with the US and would “seek to avoid decoupling with the US”.

He gave the example of Wang saying this week that China was willing to work with the US on the Build Back Better World initiative. The global infrastructure plan led by the Group of Seven aims to counter China’s influence by offering funding for projects in low-income countries.

Authors: Laura Zhou, Jun Mai, SCMP

You might also like