China's Ukraine predicament - SOAS China Institute

//China’s Ukraine predicament

China’s Ukraine predicament

Photo credit: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Ukraine / CC BY 4.0

By Gilbert Achcar | 27 June 2023

Many signs indicate that Beijing has been unhappy about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Two days into the invasion, on 26 February 2022, then Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that, “China stands for respecting and safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries and earnestly abiding by the purposes and principles of the UN Charter. China’s position is consistent and clear, and it also applies to the Ukraine issue.” Less than a month later, Qin Gang, China’s then-ambassador to the United States and its present foreign minister, published a piece in The Washington Post clearly stating that: “The sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, including Ukraine, must be respected.” The same two principles have since been reiterated in all Chinese statements on the ongoing conflict. They are central to the first of the twelve points constituting China’s “Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis” that Beijing published on the 24th of last February, at the beginning of the second year since the invasion started.


Countering the Western media’s emphasis on comparing Taiwan to Ukraine and warning against a potential Chinese invasion of the former that would be similar to Russia’s invasion of the latter, Beijing is keen on dismissing any parallel between the two cases. Paradoxical as it may seem, it is the Taiwan issue that motivates Beijing to insist on what de facto represents a blatant disavowal of Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity and its sovereignty over its territories. From China’s perspective, it is indeed the United States that is infringing upon its territorial integrity and its sovereignty when it meddles in Taiwan’s affairs. Washington is thus contradicting the commitment that it made in the US–Chinese Shanghai Communiqué, which sealed US reconciliation with the People’s Republic of China at the end of Richard Nixon’s historic visit to Beijing in 1972. The communiqué stated the following:

The United States acknowledges that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China [that was indeed the official position of both the PRC and the Republic of China, Taiwan’s official name, under Guomindang’s rule]. The United States Government does not challenge that position. It reaffirms its interest in a peaceful settlement of the Taiwan question by the Chinese themselves. With this prospect in mind, it affirms the ultimate objective of the withdrawal of all US forces and military installations from Taiwan. In the meantime, it will progressively reduce its forces and military installations on Taiwan as the tension in the area diminishes.

For Beijing, the United States – by developing military ties with the island and deploying military force in its vicinity – is violating its own pledge and encroaching on China’s sovereignty over Taiwan and therefore on China’s territorial integrity. The parallel to be drawn therefore should not be between China’s behaviour towards Taiwan and Russia’s behaviour towards Ukraine, but between the latter and US behaviour towards Taiwan.


This message must remain implicit, however. Beijing cannot openly counter the Western analogy between Russia/Ukraine and China/Taiwan by drawing an analogy between Russia/Ukraine and US/Taiwan. By its standard, this would represent a very strong indictment of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which Beijing is certainly not willing to express, especially at this point in time. That is because China sees itself as besieged by the United States, which has recently intensified its efforts to increase its military deployment and alliances in China’s Pacific backyard, while pushing NATO to further extend its zone of interest towards China.


The present tension in US-Chinese relations started developing in 1996. In March of that year, China asserted its claims over Taiwan on the eve of the first direct presidential election on the island, by firing missiles in the Strait in the belief that this posture would deter the Taiwanese from voting for the opposition’s candidate suspected of favouring the cause of Taiwan’s independence. The United States reacted to this dangerous gesture by sending two battle carrier groups to patrol the Taiwanese coastline. In the words of Patrick Tyler, former Beijing bureau chief of the New York Times, that was “the first act of American coercion against China since 1958, and certainly since President Nixon opened up relations with the People’s Republic in 1972”.


Since Nixon’s visit and until that point, China had been treated with consideration by Washington to keep it on the side of the United States in its global rivalry with the Soviet Union. The latter’s collapse in 1991 removed this incentive as it removed the impediment to the reestablishment of Chinese political and military relations with Moscow. The 1996 events convinced China of further enhancing its renewed collaboration with Russia. The US-led NATO war for Kosovo in 1999, circumventing Moscow’s and Beijing’s opposition at the UN Security Council, tipped the scales of global relations towards a New Cold War succeeding the one that ended with German unification and the USSR’s demise. In that new global confrontation, Beijing has hitherto needed to ally with Moscow to counterbalance the military superiority of the United States and its allies. This obviously sets a clear limitation to what Beijing can say or do about Ukraine.


Dismissing Beijing’s offers to help find a political settlement to the Ukraine war because it does not openly condemn Russia’s aggression can therefore be seen as merely a pretext to keep it out, along with the United Nations. Beijing won’t condemn its major ally to satisfy Washington, but its role is all the more indispensable for a settlement of the ongoing tragedy as its leverage over Moscow has considerably increased since Russia got bogged down in Ukraine after its botched invasion.

Gilbert Achcar is Professor of Development Studies and International Relations at SOAS University of London. He has written extensively on politics and development economics, as well as social change and social theory. His latest book, The New Cold War: The US, Russia and China from Kosovo to Ukraine, was published by Westbourne Press in February 2023.

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