Can Beijing stop the war? Calling out the Chinese contradiction - SOAS China Institute

//Can Beijing stop the war? Calling out the Chinese contradiction

Can Beijing stop the war? Calling out the Chinese contradiction

UN Photo / Jean-Marc Ferré (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

By John Gittings | 08 March 2022

As the Ukraine situation worsens daily, the only way to stop Putin may be if China shifts ground and indicates its opposition to his aggression. He would then be deprived of the one ally who counts. Of course it will be conveyed in coded diplomatic language, but that would be enough to give a signal to Putin and the world.


China is now impaled on the hook of a giant contradiction, and is already at variance with nearly three-quarters of the UN’s member states – not a comfortable position for a country claiming to be a well-regarded global power. Those who are friends of China, or who are professionally involved with China, now have the responsibility to speak out.


No one knows for sure how much of his plan Putin revealed to Xi Jinping at the Winter Olympics (or how much Xi then passed on), but it seems likely that he was not given a full picture. In any case, whatever gains Xi may have hoped to make from their new “no limits” relationship risk being wiped out if the world is plunged into chaos. His China dream is based on the assumption of a stable and peaceful world which is now under threat. And it would be very foolish to take advantage of the invasion of Ukraine to move against Taiwan: a two-crisis world is even more dangerous for all, including China, than a one-crisis world.


We may recall that Khrushchev was accused by China of “adventurism” over the Cuba crisis, and that at the time Beijing regarded him as “riding a tiger” 骑虎难下  (qihu nanxia) from which it would be hard to dismount. Putin’s invasion today may also be regarded as adventurism, especially by those officials who have studied diplomatic history at cadre school, and this time it may be China that is riding the tiger.


The contradiction that Beijing now faces in its policy towards Ukraine is crystallised in its position on the UN Charter. Last October on the 50th anniversary of the PRC taking its seat in the UN, Xi gave a speech insisting at length that China has “stayed true to the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, and upheld the central role of the United Nations in international affairs.” The day after the Russian invasion, Foreign Minister Wang Yi used the same formula, that China abides by the “purposes and principles of the UN Charter”, and asserted that China firmly respects “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries.” Yet a week later at the UN General Assembly Special Session on Ukraine, China abstained on the Assembly’s resolution which found by a large majority (141 to 5 with 35 abstentions) that Russia has committed aggression “in violation of Article 2 (4) of the Charter.”


China seeks to qualify its commitment to the Charter by arguing, in the words of its delegate to the Special Session, that the resolution did not take into account “the history and complexity of the current crisis”, and Foreign Ministry spokespersons have referred to its “complex background”. It is claimed that security (of Ukraine) cannot be achieved at the expense of the security of others (Russia). Whether this is the case is beside the point: such a problem cannot be solved, within the terms of the Charter, by invasion. As the UK United Nations Association has explained:

…here was no imminent danger to justify [under the Charter] pre-emptive self defence (which is in any case a dubious justification) and … any military action to protect populations in Eastern Ukraine (even if such a threat were real which has not been demonstrated) would require a Security Council authorisation.

How can Beijing dismount from the tiger? It can do so privately to Moscow on the grounds that the invasion is no longer a supposedly limited “special military operation”, and by referencing the civilian losses, the nuclear risk, the reputational danger and isolation on the world stage. At the highest level, Xi can tell Putin that he acquiesced on the assumption that whatever was done would be swift and effective. China, he would continue, is acting in the spirit of true friendship to Russia, because true friends have the duty to give frank advice.


For open consumption, here are some ways to signal a change of policy without making a public U-turn.

  • The People’s Daily publishes a historical commentary, looking ahead to the 60th anniversary of the Cuba crisis, and employing the word “adventurism”.
  • The word “invasion” is permitted in some Chinese media.
  • An internal briefing is issued setting out China’s concerns, and it is leaked.
  • China should extend its promise to send “a batch of humanitarian aid”,  to establish rapidly a regular flow of such aid, ensuring it goes to the Ukrainian government-controlled areas.
A number of courageous professors and university alumni within China have already spoken out at great personal risk. Those professionally involved in one way or another with China who are outside the mainland, and who are not at risk, are much better able to speak frankly to their Chinese friends and connections, to express their concern publicly, and to challenge the contradiction between supporting the UN Charter and remaining silent on Russian aggression.

John Gittings is a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.