While the situation in Ukraine grew more complicated, China’s posture, which announced “limitless friendship” with Russia at the start of the month, was intriguing. China, claiming to have adopted a “neutral” stance till now, has taken a middle ground by voting “abstention” in the UN’s first meeting.

Despite moving closer to Russia in the UN Human Rights Council vote, China maintains its neutral position.

While China recognizes Ukraine’s territorial integrity, it also believes that Russia’s legitimate concerns should be addressed.

In conclusion, while China wants a quick resolution to the crisis, it does not ignore the situation about NATO’s enlargement.

Of course, this “middle-ground” should be understood with China’s and Russia’s increasing relations, as well as China’s political rhetoric, which avoids criticising Russia. Because of its strategic ties with Russia, China favoured diplomatic language that did not irritate both the international community and its strategic ally.

China also stated that they are strategic partners with Russia, not allies. The Chinese side argued that its position in Ukraine is consistent, stating that it bases its position and policies on the essence of the matter.

China Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced a five-point “stance” text which defends Ukraine’s territorial integrity, also emphasized in this document that other countries’ “security concerns” should be considered. According to the text, Russia has legitimate concerns about NATO’s enlargement, and these concerns should be considered.

 

“There is nothing to be gained from a new Cold War”

Wang Yi also noted that “as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a responsible major country, China has always faithfully fulfilled its international obligations and played a constructive role in maintaining world peace and stability. When it comes to peace and security, China has the best record among major countries.”

Furthermore, in a phone conversation with German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, Wang Yi stated the Cold War is past and that NATO must reexamine its role and obligations.

As a result, China believes that a “new Cold War” would be futile. He even believes that the United States is to blame. The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Hua Chunying, stated that the US is “to blame for the current tensions surrounding Ukraine.”

It is also worth noting that Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated last month that there is no upper limit in Sino-Russian relations.

In fact, China’s attitude should come as no surprise. They stated in a joint statement with Russia, “The parties oppose NATO enlargement and call on the North Atlantic Alliance to abandon its ideological cold war approaches and respect the sovereignty, security, and interests of other countries.”

Foreign Minister Wang said at the Munich Security Conference, “NATO was a product of the Cold War era, and now we have to look at the current situation.” Will NATO ensure peace in Europe, and will it truly lead to long-term peace and stability in Europe? “I believe this is a question that our European friends should seriously consider,” he said, highlighting NATO enlargement in particular.

Since the beginning of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, it has perplexed the world why China has not condemned it. In fact India has not condemned it as well. Even some of the world’s most powerful Asian and African nations are on the same board. Countries, gradually, are concerned that this commerce will morph into a “new Cold War”. After a while, this predicament appears will to give way to the fear of picking sides.

Could there, however, possiblity that China is uneasy with Putin’s tactics? Yes, possibly. It’s still a “mystery” whether Russian President Vladimir Putin briefed Chinese President Xi Jinping about his plans for Ukraine during their February summit in Beijing.

If Putin does not reveal his intentions regarding Ukraine to Xi Jinping, the two countries may face a serious “trust” crisis. Or Putin explained the situation, but Chinese leadership did not take a “preventive” stance, in such a case, a fresh crisis could erupt. Alternatively, it can be interpreted as a sign that the two countries are moving toward a more profound rapprochement than a strategic partnership.

On the other hand, according to some news published in the American press last month, US intelligence shared some reports about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with China, but China did not accepted. This adds to the complication of the situation.

It is clear that China’s attitude toward Russia has not changed. He also issued a new statement clarifying his position, particularly “We are against illegal unilateral sanctions against Russia.”

Because Russia is China’s second-largest oil exporter after Saudi Arabia, China is deeply concerned about imposing sanctions on Russia. Because oil payments are made via SWIFT, economic relations between China and Russia may be strained. Although both countries are developing alternative financial payment systems, they are still in their early stages.

China and Russia, on the other hand, are moving toward a new relationship model in which both sides have become dependent because of the recent joint statement’s energy agreements. As a result, neither side has enough wiggle room to sacrifice the other.

China recently sent another important signal by relaxing restrictions on Russian grain imports. On the other hand, talks with Russia about purchasing large amounts of coal continue. Russia’s largest trading partner is currently China, and bilateral trade volume is expected to increase by 36% to $147 billion in 2021.

During the transition period, China appears to prefer a neutral position. Following the Ukraine crisis, Russia may become diplomatically dependent on China. As a result, China will not avoid such a conjuncture.

Russia, which appears to be completely isolated in the Ukraine issue, appears to be deepening its alignment with China and losing its advantage in the asymmetric partnership relationship.

As a result, China appears unlikely to withdraw its support for Russia. However, China’s abstention in the first vote could be interpreted as a sign that it will not provide “unconditional support” to Russia.

 

China needs to reconsider its Taiwan policy

The Ukraine crisis, on the other hand, appears to be having a significant impact on China’s Taiwan aspirations. Taiwan has made it obvious that it will increase its armament requirements. It may force China to act quickly as a result of this armament. A quick response will also put China in a tough position. In such a tough situation, it appears unreasonable to expect China to be in the opposing camp for the time being.

In the middle of all of this, former Japanese Prime Minister Abe urges the US to forsake its basic policy to Taiwan, which is based on strategic ambiguity. Even in this statement, the Chinese government sees a rationale to keep China from taking a stand against Russia.

On the other hand, in this geopolitical climate, where the United States has just released its Indo-Pacific strategy, it is in China’s interest that it preoccupied the United States with Ukraine.

On the other side, the US diplomacy elite is fixated on the ‘crisis’ that will erupt between China and Russia. They calculate the Ukraine issue will create a rift and that a wedge will be driven between China and Russia to deal a vital blow to China in the struggle for global hegemony.

In short, since the conclusion of the Cold War, the globe has been in a serious state of disarray.

When the Soviet Union fell apart, the entire world concluded that the United States had won the cold war. Despite this, the “geopolitical landscape” of today reveals that no one has ever won a war. The conflict continues. It is once again recognized that the international order cannot afford to be “unipolar.”

History does not follow a straight path. It’s more like making spirals. Deep breaks occur from time to time during these spirals. War is now more than ever a possibility in a system that has shifted to multipolarity.

That China and Russia have formed a strong relationship is the most significant geopolitical shift of this age. It’s difficult to say how the Ukraine crisis will affect this business right now, but Taiwan’s status will keep China on Russia’s side.

Given these two countries’ spheres of influence, the likelihood of dominating the “global island” is fairly high. Not just China, but also Russia, is extremely active around the globe. And, although some prejudices do not accept this condition, it is the nightmare of the United States and NATO.

It is clearly undeniable that China and Russia have raised their “flags” to support a new international order. In this scenario, the current international system’s chances of surviving in a geopolitical terrain that is rapidly changing are dwindling. China’s foreign policy, which is built on the ideals of peaceful coexistence, appears to be put to the test soon.

Russia, in an unexpected step on the Ukraine issue, has adopted a strategy that goes beyond its capabilities. While this condition led to the new Cold War’s deepening, it also placed China in a precarious position.

 

In peace discussions, China can take the lead

China can push Russia back and move the issue closer to a diplomatic solution. If the situation worsens, China stands to lose a lot because of possible Western sanctions. Both Russia and Ukraine have strong economic ties with China.

The Chinese economic downturn, when paired with the consequences of the Ukraine crisis, could have long-term economic consequences. As a result, Beijing stands to gain political and economic gains from efforts to resolve the Ukraine-Russia dispute.

While China’s entire trade with Russia is roughly (140) billion dollars, it is close to one trillion dollars with the United States and European Union. As a result, China will assess the situation.

In this scenario, the development of a mechanism known as “Beijing Peace Talks” between Ukraine and Russia may be viable. This circumstance appears to be in line with China’s impartial stance.

Of course, there is the possibility that China may fully support Russia. A Russia besieged by sanctions could, like Iran, reach “colossal” commercial agreements with China. Through special trade agreements, it might transfer energy to China.

China and Russia have huge energy agreements in place right now. Russia, which will grow even more reliant on China because of the sanctions, will be forced to rely on it. Iran had taken a similar stance in favour of China.

As a result, China may try to take advantage of the situation by maintaining its neutral attitude. On the one hand, the peace process between the two countries may be controlled, and on the other side, it can supply countries that have been sanctioned with an economic manoeuvring space.

Dr.Hüseyin Korkmaz. The author is a researcher focusing on China and geopolitics in the Asia, primarily related to the US-China relations.

@drhkorkmaz