Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, China has been pleading for peace, albeit a rather vague one. On the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Beijing launched a new wave of peace offensives and issued a 12-point statement on “China’s Position on a Political Solution to the Ukraine Crisis.”
In addition, China’s leader Xi Jinping decided to travel to Moscow to meet personally with Russian President Vladimir Putin to “move the countries to peace and promote talks”. The timing of Beijing’s peace offensive suggests that China’s leaders may be concerned about a defeat by Russia and the subsequent overthrow of the Putin regime.
Instead of achieving its goal of destroying Ukraine as a state, Russia has suffered heavy casualties in this war and has been sanctioned by the West and isolated from the international community. As a result, Russia now urgently needs economic and military support from its largest partner, China. It would have been logical for Putin to visit Beijing. Now, Xi Jinping is visiting Moscow instead, suggesting Beijing is pursuing its own agenda. Beijing’s goal is not so much to “move the country to peace and encourage talks” but rather to safeguard its own national interests.
A geopolitical and ideological nightmare
In this war, Beijing faces three scenarios. First, the bottom line is that Beijing wants to ensure that defeat does not overthrow Putin’s regime, which could result in pro-Western forces taking power in Russia. China is currently under tremendous pressure from the US as Washington steadily advances its Indo-Pacific strategy.
There is not only the Five Eyes Intelligence Alliance (Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Great Britain and USA), which has existed for over 80 years, but also the newly founded AUKUS (Australia, Great Britain and USA) and QUAD (USA, Japan, Australia and India) . Beijing therefore fears that an “Asian NATO” will emerge that will encircle China.
If Putin’s regime falls and pro-Western forces come to power in Russia, Russia will inevitably join the Western camp in containing China; and China will be trapped in an O-shaped encirclement. Even if Russia remains neutral post-Putin and does not align itself with the West, China will face strategic pressures from the US and the West alone. This would no doubt be a double geopolitical and ideological nightmare for Beijing.
Xi Jinping considers Putin his best friend
Beijing must therefore avoid this worst-case scenario at all costs and will certainly try to preserve Putin’s regime. Because, despite its economic weakness, Russia still has vast territory, rich natural resources and powerful strategic nuclear weapons. As a large independent geopolitical entity, Russia is Beijing’s most powerful ally in its struggle against the US and the West.
Xi Jinping considers Putin his best friend, and this trip to Moscow will mark the 40th time the two have met face-to-face. Their destinies are linked, a fall of Putin would be a heavy blow for Xi. Xi’s personal preferences could also have a crucial impact on China’s foreign policy, as he is the strongest leader since the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
The tiger can lean back
Second, Beijing could accept continuing the war and sustaining a war of attrition, as this would discourage American and Western forces from massively redeploying to the Indo-Pacific, thus relieving strategic pressures on Beijing.
A protracted war of attrition would also weaken Russia, which is indeed in Beijing’s strategic interest, but the country cannot say so publicly. Historically, the Tsarist Empire had seized much territory from China, and the Soviet Union posed a serious military threat to China, forcing it to build a costly “third front” to defend against invasion from the north. If the Russian bear’s teeth were pulled in the Ukraine war, it would make China’s northern border more secure in real terms, which would objectively be to China’s advantage.
Ultimately, however, it would be best for Beijing if Russia quickly defeated Ukraine militarily and completely occupied the country. For this would lead to a protracted confrontation between NATO and Russia and even bring with it the possibility of outright war. In such a scenario, both the West and Russia would lose, while China could sit back and watch the tigers fight.
Worst case scenario
More than a year into the war, with Russia’s conventional forces faring far less well than expected and with no prospect of a quick recovery in sight, the third scenario is hard to imagine. In fact, the conflict is currently in the second scenario as the war has entered the attrition phase and neither side is able to quickly defeat the other.
Taken together, however, Ukraine and the western camp that stands behind it are far more powerful than Russia. At the same time, Beijing is finding it difficult to provide large-scale military support to Russia.
If Moscow demands that Beijing fulfill its promise of “unlimited friendship,” Beijing cannot do so without the threat of sanctions from Europe and the US, with whom it has far closer economic and trade ties than it does with Russia. Without Beijing’s military support, Russia could not last long in this war of attrition and the situation could move sharply towards the worst-case scenario.
Beijing’s tradition of the united front
Beijing must be so concerned about this that it is launching a “peace offensive” at this point, probably with the basic goal of persuading Putin to halt his encroachment at a time when peace talks could at least secure the already occupied Ukrainian territories. Beijing may have realized that time is playing into Ukraine’s hands. Ukraine could launch a strategic counteroffensive with the arrival of Western heavy weapons, with the likelihood of Putin’s regime collapsing in defeat increasing by the day.
Even if the peace offensive fails, it has great propaganda value for Beijing, as it shows Europe it is urging peace and talks while the US is adding fuel to the fire by trying to prolong the war. Beijing therefore believes that a peace offensive at this point will help divide the US and Europe and encourage European countries to strengthen their “strategic autonomy” to prevent them from becoming entangled in the strategic competition between China and China fully side with the US, in keeping with Beijing’s tradition of the united front.
China’s actual influence on Russia is not as great as assumed
So Beijing’s peace offensive serves its own strategic interests, at least to ensure that Putin’s regime is not overthrown. Beijing’s ability to move the Russia-Ukraine war towards a peaceful outcome depends on how much influence Beijing has over Moscow and how it intends to use its influence.
Beijing’s influence on Kiev is quite limited and almost negligible since it is mainly the West that provides military and economic aid to Ukraine. Beijing’s influence on Moscow, on the other hand, is of questionable proportions, as China has so far provided Russia with mainly economic support to fuel its war machine, but has not provided direct military assistance on a large scale.
And the role of China’s economic blood transfusions to Russia may also have been exaggerated. According to statistics from the Finland-based Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA), since the war broke out until March 14, 2023, China has bought Russian fossil fuels (oil, gas and coal) worth a total of 66.2 billion euros, paid a whopping 146.3 billion euros to the EU countries. China’s economic transfusion to Russia is less than half that of EU countries.
So China’s actual influence on Russia is not as great as assumed. Beijing offers more ideological support to Moscow, as both are among the powers considered authoritarian by the West and both are unhappy with the West’s promotion of liberal values.
So Moscow had to give the go-ahead for the Sino-Kyrgyz-Uzbek railway
Of course, Beijing is aware that Russia’s war against Ukraine is an unjust war, since it violates the international political principle that China has long upheld, namely that national sovereignty and territorial integrity are not violated by other countries may.
Beijing supports Moscow because it sees Russia as an instrument for its own security interests and expects Russia to act as a shield between China and the West, as the Russian political elite knows only too well. Beijing, taking advantage of Moscow’s desperation and need to sell energy to obtain significant discounts, is no longer so tolerant of Russia’s close ties with its two hostile neighbors, India and Vietnam.
In addition, Beijing has gained significant ground in Central Asia, Russia’s traditional sphere of influence. Moscow had to give the green light to the Sino-Kyrgyz-Uzbek railway, which it had blocked for 25 years. So Beijing’s relations with Moscow are far more complex than they appear on the surface. Since the Sino-Soviet friendship during Cold War I only lasted about a decade before collapsing and both sides embarking on armed clashes, there is no reason to believe that the Sino-Russian alliance throughout Cold War II was always rock-solid will be.
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(The author is a Chinese PhD student at Freie Universität Berlin with research interests in international relations, geopolitics, and strategy.)
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