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One year of Ukraine war

Which way China will swing

America cannot take Beijing’s relative neutrality for granted

Which way China will swing

Wary: Chinese interests may dictate that Russia must not lose the war. Reuters



Shyam Saran

Former Foreign Secretary and senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research

China has so far failed to live up to the description of China-Russia relations as having ‘no limits’ and there being ‘no forbidden areas of cooperation’ contained in their historic Joint Statement of February 4, 2022. This was weeks before Russian forces invaded Ukraine on February 24. Chinese posture has been rhetorically supportive of Russia but cautious in extending substantive assistance to its war effort. US President Biden had, in his video call with Chinese President Xi Jinping on March 18, 2022, warned that there would be ‘consequences if China provides material support to Russia’.

China may well be trying to link its restraint on supplying lethal material to Russia to American restraint on weapon supplies to Taiwan.

China has implicitly taken the warning seriously and has so far refrained from transferring weapons and other military items to Russia but it has pushed the envelope in providing a range of dual-use items and critical spares and components which may not fall explicitly in the military category. It has rejected unilateral US and European sanctions against Russia but has been careful not to violate those where it would be vulnerable to follow-on sanctions itself. For example, despite Russian requests, China has refrained from supplying spares and components to Russia’s civilian fleet of Boeing and Airbus passenger aircraft. China’s cautious stance has been welcomed by Ukraine. President Zelenskyy has remarked, ‘China has chosen this policy of staying away. At the moment, Ukraine is satisfied with this policy. It is better than helping the Russian Federation in any case. And I want to believe that China will not pursue another policy. We are satisfied with the status quo.’

If the US Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken is to be believed, the Chinese relative hands-off policy may be about to change. At the Munich Security conference, Blinken told a news channel that in his meeting with Chinese state councillor Wang Yi, he had expressed ‘deep concerns’ about the ‘possibility that China will provide lethal material support to Russia’. He later specified that he meant weapons and ammunition in the ‘lethal’ category.

Blinken did not clarify what the source of his information was, nor if Wang Yi had reacted to this in any manner. Earlier, China had officially denied it had supplied weapons to Russia.

Blinken reiterated US stand that any such change in Chinese policy would have serious consequences for US-China relations, which have recently been further vitiated as a result of the shooting down of a Chinese surveillance balloon over US territory. Wang Yi has described US reaction to the balloon incident as ‘hysterical’. The Chinese claimed it was a balloon carrying out civilian research activities and had accidentally strayed into US airspace. Blinken’s further warnings about the negative impact of Chinese arms supply to Russia can only bring relations between the two countries to a new low.

What are the chances of China providing open military support to Russia at this juncture? China may well be trying to link its restraint on supplying lethal material to Russia to US restraint on weapon supplies to Taiwan. It may be conveying a message to the US that the latter cannot expect China to continue its policy of not supplying lethal weapons to Russia if the US continues to ratchet up its supply of sophisticated weapons to Taiwan. So, China’s relative neutrality has a price.

The US and NATO have stated that their aim is not to let Russia win the Ukraine war. For China, its interests may dictate that Russia must not lose the war. That would make China even more vulnerable to the containment policies of the US. It is against this backdrop that one should assess reports that on February 24, which will mark the first anniversary of the outbreak of the Ukraine war, Xi Jinping will lay out his country’s policy on the conflict and announce an initiative to promote its settlement. It is unlikely that his initiative would not have been fully discussed and aligned with Russian intent. Could this also signal a Russian acknowledgement that it could not continue this war much longer without suffering significant long-term damage? Moscow may have conveyed to China that it is willing to look at an honourable escape route. In his Munich speech, Wang Yi said, ‘I suggest that everybody starts to think calmly, especially friends in Europe, about what kind of efforts we can make to stop this war.’

It is interesting that Wang Yi addressed his remarks particularly to European countries, where war fatigue is beginning to surface; there are heightened concerns over the danger of uncontrolled escalation and doubts over Ukraine’s ability to sustain a prolonged war of attrition. The Europeans may welcome a Chinese mediatory role to bring about a cessation of hostilities and initiate peace talks. Having acknowledged China’s relatively neutral posture, Ukraine has no reason to oppose the initiative. Furthermore, suggestions that China may well begin to supply lethal weapons to Russia if the war continues may also encourage a serious response to Chinese peace proposals. The US reaction may not be as welcoming and it may well try and stymie any such peace initiative.

What should be India’s stance when a Chinese peace initiative is unveiled? Will India’s G20 moment be dimmed as China attempts to take centre stage in addressing the most dangerous crisis of our times? Did India miss an opportunity to leverage its partnerships with Russia, Europe, and above all, the US to pursue a possible peace initiative? We may soon be witnessing an interesting turn in the shifting geopolitical terrain.


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