Beijing's lessons from the Russia-Ukraine-West conflict
By Dominik Mierzejewski | 01 March 2022
Although the focus of the international community is quite rightly focused on Russia, Ukraine, NATO, and the EU with regard to the current international crisis, there are other potential consequences. China is watching with a certain trepidation. It sees how the Americans mobilize their friends in times of crisis, and how American diplomacy uses the United Nations to leak classified information. Although the Chinese government feels duty-bound to support Russia and its imperialistic ambitions, China runs the risk of being labelled an imperial power, especially in the developing world. In addition, current Russian policy may trigger a possible move from Japan regarding territorial claims and push the country toward closer relations with the G7 and the EU. All three points will be taken under consideration by the Chinese authorities when dealing with Moscow.
During a call Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladamir Putin exchanged views (jiaohuan yijian 交换意见) about the Russian war against Ukraine. “China supports Russia and Ukraine to resolve issues through negotiations,” Xi said (February 25, 2022). In other words, China secures its position of being the ultimate arbiter and bides its time to use the situation to the fullest. This ambiguous strategic approach should also be noted in the previous statement made by Chinese diplomats. In Munich Wang Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, confirmed that China supports ‘all countries’ sovereignty as well as independence and that territorial integrity should be respected and safeguarded, adding that Ukraine is no exception to this principle. Moreover, according to the Chinese side, the Minsk II Agreement should be adhered to. However, Russia has done the opposite and recognized the quasi-independent states in the eastern part of Ukraine.
When analyzing the recent press conferences of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, one might think that the fault for the conflict between Moscow and the West lies with the West, or more precisely, the United States. In recent press conferences, Wang Wenbin and Zhao Lijian have criticized the West for “sowing disinformation on the Internet”, de facto shaping a conflict between the two parties and provoking a potential “Cold War”. From both Moscow and Beijing’s statements, we can see that these statements represent two sides of the same coin. One such statement was made by Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who said that Western countries’ statements about a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine were “propaganda, fake news and inventions.” However, one should ask what have the Chinese learned from Russia’s increasing aggression against Ukraine and the reaction of the United States and its allies to this?
Uniting NATO and Europe with controlled “information leakage”
As acknowledged from the current situation Putin’s actions have had completely the opposite effect to what the Russian president had intended. Instead of breaking the West’s united resolve through the “divide and rule” principle, the West has so far stood firm. Securing NATO’s eastern flank has continued with military reinforcements including increased numbers of US troops. Any doubts that the West would become disunited in the face of aggression have to a certain extent been dispelled. Even Germany, which is highly dependent on Russia for natural resources has shelved plans for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to become operational. Furthermore, indirectly, the US has made the Chinese elite aware of how the Americans can unite their allies. A number of developments may well have taken Beijing by surprise. Firstly, the German government’s announcement that it was reconsidering its “change through trade” policy with Russia and China, respectively. Secondly, the Russian government’s failure to recognize the unity of the Ukrainian people. Lastly, and perhaps the biggest surprise for the Chinese government has been the West’s unity in action.
Let us imagine an analogous situation with the Middle Kingdom: the controlled information leakage before the Russian war in Ukraine. With the Chinese People’s Liberation Army threatening military action against Taiwan, Secretary of State Antony Blinken would address the UN Security Council in the same way as he did with regard to Russia’s actions (January 17, 2022): China is preparing an attack for this or that day, employing broad disinformation activities and due to this, is displaying imperial aspirations. Of course, this does not prejudge whether they will invade Taiwan but from the point of view of diplomatic practice, it offers allies the opportunity to mobilize and gain the necessary time to regroup. In addition, the opponent is discredited in the international arena. Let us add that such a narrative may find fertile ground in Asia. The sceptical views and anti-Chinese sentiment play an important role in shaping China’s position in Southeast Asia. The relations between the Philippines, China and the United States could well provide a litmus test. Although President Duterte was a notable proponent of Xi Jinping, the government in Manila has been increasingly looking to the American administration. Vietnam is another potential partner. Historical memories and past events with the Middle Kingdom have influenced the Vietnamese perception of threat far more than those of the Vietnam War.
Non-interference vs. China-Russia threat
Since its founding in 1949, the People’s Republic of China has been pushing the principles of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. And although they often remain on paper, as is usually the case with declarations, Russia no longer adheres to these principles. Yet, we need to remember that Zhou Enlai introduced these principles in the early 1950s out of fear of Stalinist interference in the Chinese development model. However, things are different now. It is difficult for the Chinese leadership to excuse Moscow’s actions and take responsibility for the actions of its “little brother”. But over time, there is a risk that, in the Western narrative, Beijing may be hailed in some quarters as a revisionist state cooperating with a global “trouble maker”. It might be even easier now, after speculation that Wang Yi’s statement in Munich supporting the Minsk II Agreement was purely in line with Moscow’s actions. Such a message may particularly resonate with America’s allies in Southeast Asia. The authorities in the Middle Kingdom are well aware of discursive power (huayu quan 话语权). If alternative versions of reality are confronted (and this is already happening), the principles of non-interference promoted by China may not stand the test of time.
Due to the need to maintain an official interpretation of the events in Ukraine and the close relationship between Xi Jinping and Putin, China has not condemned Russia. According to a spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, relations with Russia are based on principles such as “win-win”, mutual respect and understanding. Moreover, the relations between Beijing and Moscow are not targeted at third countries, and, as a matter of priority, they are highly centralized and dependent on arrangements at the highest level.
The need for China to maintain an image of a non-interfering state prevents Beijing from openly assessing Russia’s actions. Nevertheless, Beijing is aware of Moscow’s imperialist past, including its nineteenth-century activities in the Middle Kingdom. In the long run, this may portray Beijing, as having similar imperial aspirations to its Russian counterparts. This should be particularly important in light of the discussion at the UN Security Council (21 February 2022) when the Kenyan delegation called on Russia to stop its imperialist actions against Ukraine. The message is clear, once China follows the “Russian path”, China might be subject to international and political ostracism as a member which threatens stability.
Of course, the current international situation is a double-edged sword for China. If the war in Ukraine becomes a protracted one, and the European and American forces need to reallocate their resources because of the conflict, the Chinese government could benefit from this. On the other hand, China’s peaceful image, which has been strongly advocated by the country’s elites for a number of years, could be significantly tarnished as international pressure to portray Russia as “a global warlord” increases.
Japan’s territorial claims and diplomatic activities
Russian actions have pushed the government in Tokyo to engage in international discussions. Taking advantage of Russia’s involvement in Ukraine, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, in his speech on February 7, 2022, stated that Japan “is trying to hold permanent consultations with Russia to resolve the territorial issue”. The Russian conflict in Ukraine has persuaded Japanese diplomats to become involved in what may be perceived in Beijing as “an attempt to revise borders”. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ reaction was swift to support the Russian position. Zhao Lijian commented that the case of the southern Kuril Islands is a bilateral matter between Russia and Japan. The Chinese side recognizes that “the results of the victory of the anti-fascist war should be sincerely respected and sustained.” So in this context, at least rhetorically, Russia can count on Beijing’s support with Japan being portrayed as a former “fascist power”.
In addition, the Japanese government is very much in favour of imposing severe sanctions on Moscow, which may be promoted in any future confrontation with China. As a member of the “rich countries club,” Japan can lobby for more sanctions against Russia. The tools at the disposal of the G7 are still not available to either the BRICS or the G20. The government’s stance in Tokyo is forthright with Japan opting for the imposition of severe sanctions on Moscow, finally imposed by the government in Tokyo. Moreover, as reported, Japanese banks are already collecting specific information on which accounts and credit lines should be blocked and when.
Furthermore, the Japanese side has declared close cooperation with the European Union, which in the context of the accusations made by President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen against Russia and China, puts Chinese diplomacy in an increasingly difficult position. To illustrate this point, the Japanese government announced on 22nd February that it was diverting some liquified gas cargoes to Europe in order to counter any possible LNG shortages.
The opening of territorial issues by Tokyo will inevitably lead to an increase in Japan’s assertiveness in East Asia. It will therefore be necessary for China to utilize its resources, both diplomatic and military, in order to counterbalance Japanese influence. This will limit China’s room for manoeuvre in other strategic areas.
Beijing is on the sidelines of the Ukraine conflict and can certainly use the United States’ commitment to Europe in its Asian policy. Washington can not change the nature of NATO from a transatlantic pact to a global coalition including China, as has previously been declared. But, having anticipated future clashes with Russia, the American administration secured their position in Asia through minilateral agreements namely QUAD and AUKUS. Closer relations with Russia will mean that China and Russia will take on the roles of “big brother” and “little brother”, respectively. This will be used tactically by the United States to emphasize Chinese imperial intentions in international politics. In other words, perhaps unintentionally, the actions of the PRC will be equated with Russian policy.
During the “Cold War” period, the Chinese narrative was dominated by promoting the US-Soviet Union’s ‘imperialist duo’. However, the Americans will now paint the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation as imperial giants. Washington could use its roots as being an anti-imperial power that secures the world from authoritarian regimes to gain more support in international politics, even in the developing world. The anti-imperial narrative should be taken as an important asset in American soft-power with the country being able to check the willingness of other nations to join the United States and then build a coalition and mobilize its allies. This ability to muster countries into a coherent strategy is something that Beijing significantly lacks.
Dominik Mierzejewski is Chair at the Center for Asian Affairs (University based think-tank) and Professor at the Department of Asian Studies, Faculty of International and Political Studies, University of Lodz, Poland. He studied at the Shanghai International Studies University (1999-2000, 2003-2004), was an intern at the Heritage Foundation and was awarded the Jan Karski scholarship by the American Center of Polish Culture in 2003. He was a visiting professor in the Chinese Academy of Social Science, with a grant from the Polish Foundation for Science (2010-2011). He has published three monographs: Between Morality and Pragmatism: Dezideologization of the Rhetoric of China’s Diplomacy (Lodz 2013), China’s Selective Identities: State, Ideology and Culture (co-author, Palgrave 2019) and The China’s Provinces and the Belt and Road Initiative (Routledge 2021).
The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.
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