Is China’s ‘Straddle’ on Ukraine Coming to an End?
Over the course of the first year of Russia’s war on Ukraine, a consensus view of the calculus behind China’s approach to the conflict has emerged.
This view suggests that Beijing has engaged in a “straddle” on Ukraine where it has sought to balance its desire to maintain the “no limits” partnership with Russia against the collateral damage to its interests that could flow from being too closely associated with an increasingly isolated Moscow. So long as China avoids direct involvement in the conflict, this rationale contends, it will “at most suffer secondary sanctions for its political and economic support,” and Beijing’s continued partnership with Moscow will also remain a useful instrument to dilute U.S. focus and resources from Asia.
Thus far China’s “straddle” has arguably been successful. Its support for Russia – such as repeating Russian disinformation on Ukraine and calling for a “negotiated” resolution to the conflict – has been undertaken “in areas and ways that have incurred minimal cost.” Simultaneously Beijing has also increased its leverage within the Sino-Russian relationship to the extent that some now see Russia as becoming the junior partner. The sanctions and export controls imposed on Moscow, for instance, have undoubtedly left Russia far more dependent on Beijing as a source of technology, like semiconductors, and as a customer for Russian natural resources.
Mounting speculation that Beijing is considering provision of “lethal aid” to Moscow thus raises the question: Why would China shift from this ostensibly successful course?
Based on a purely interests-based assessment, the benefits to China of arming Russia would appear to be outweighed by the risks. As U.S. and European leaders have made clear, such an action would see the floor fall out from beneath already fractious China-U.S. relations and further alienate European capitals at the very moment Beijing has sought to reinvigorate China-Europe ties.
However external observers should be careful about projecting our own sense of rationality upon the decision-makers in Zhongnanhai, as such leaders operate in a political and ideological environment that conditions available policy options in distinct ways.
Most significant here is how the centralization of foreign and defense policy under the direct leadership of Xi Jinping and Xi’s close personal investment in Sino-Russian relations may converge to produce an outcome contradictory to a purely interests-based assessment of China’s best course of action.
With respect to the former, Xi has placed himself at the heart of the most consequential state and party bodies, serving not only in his roles as Chinese Communist Party (CCP) general secretary and president but also chair of the Central Military Commission, the National Security Council, and the most consequential foreign and security policy Small Leading Groups (SLG) of the CCP Central Committee.
Although this has permitted greater capacity for more efficient decision-making, it makes it inherently “stove-piped” as Xi is the only authoritative leader who can coordinate and act on information provided by these various leading foreign-policy-focused state and party bodies. Such “personalist authoritarian regimes,” as Sheena Chestnut Greitens reminds us, “tend to be information-sclerotic and avoid delivering bad news and negative feedback to leaders, even when that information seems obvious to an outside observer.”
Xi’s personal commitment to the Sino-Russian partnership also holds the potential to exacerbate the problems of such “stove-piped” decision-making.
Yun Sun argues that Xi’s admiration for Russia is such that it constitutes a “complex” based on his background as a revolutionary “princeling.” Xi grew up during the high tide of the Sovietization of China’s political, economic, and military systems, and his education was shaped by Soviet/Russian models. This “complex” expresses itself in contemporary Sino-Russian relations in “a leader-level nostalgia for the Sino-Soviet partnership” of the 1950s, an admiration for Putin’s “strongman” rule, and a rare but effusive declaration by Xi that the Russian leader is “my closest foreign colleague and my best confidant.”
Perhaps most troublingly, Xi’s Russia “complex” has resulted in a “selective bias in his judgment about Russia’s national power,” where he is prone to “overestimating Russia’s strengths and reliability, while underestimating its weaknesses and the risks posed to China.”
Some well-connected Chinese analysts have also drawn attention to this “complex.” Feng Yujun – a lead analyst of Sino-Russian relations for Fudan University – for example, has pointedly critiqued the Sino-Russian partnership as based on a fundamentally flawed assessment of what it contributes to China. He argues that “Chinese elites have not yet soberly realized that there has been a historical reversal in the comprehensive national power of China and Russia” and that while “our national power is ten times that of Russia, many people’s minds are still subservient to it.” As a result, China is “basically led by the nose by Russia.”
Such a mindset, Feng continued, has enabled Russia to manipulate China in the U.S.-Russia-China strategic triangle by “mobilizing” Sino-U.S. “contradictions” to persuade China that it needs close alignment with Russia to mitigate worsening ties with the United States. He concludes that, while China should desire “stable and constructive” relations with Russia, enjoying that type of relationship with Washington is actually more important, as that relationship will “determine China’s overall international environment in the future.”
While it may be heartening from an external perspective to see such a critique, we must recognize that Xi does not see things this way. Arguably, he continues to see Russia and China as sharing similar domestic and systemic threats or challenges to their regimes, necessitating close Sino-Russian ties to combat Western (i.e. U.S.) led efforts to constrain them.
Most important for Beijing is shoring up Russian support for its position on Taiwan. This has been made abundantly clear several times since February 2022. Right at the start of the Russian invasion, for instance, Ming Jinwei – a senior editor at the Xinhua News Agency – wrote on the Chinese social media platform Weibo that China had to back Russia “with emotional and moral support while refraining from treading on the toes of the United States and European Union” so that in the future China could have “Russia’s understanding and support when wrestling with America to solve the Taiwan issue once and for all.”
Meanwhile, during Xi and Putin’s meeting on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit on September 15] 2022, the Chinese readout underlined Russia’s reaffirmation of its commitment to the “One China principle,” condemnation of “provocative moves by individual countries on issues concerning China’s core interests,” and Sino-Russia commitment to “promote” regional security and stability “based on the principle of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.”
China’s assessment of the trajectory of the global security environment too also factors into the perceived need for ongoing Sino-Russian partnership.
What is striking here is how China’s perception of the war in Ukraine intersects with its prevailing view of Sino-U.S. relations. One Chinese analyst from the Center for Strategy and Security at Tsinghua University argues in this context that not only has the war in Ukraine “accelerated and intensified” U.S. “strategic deployment” against China but a “system of strategic suppression” has been formed that “binds China and Russia together.” China thus “sees little benefit to be gained from sacrificing its relationship with Moscow in favor of embracing a Washington that has declared China the greatest external threat to the United States and the ‘rules-based order.’”
More importantly, Xi himself has recently expressed similar views.
In a discussion with Chinese commerce and industry representatives on March 3, he was reported to have described China’s international environment as full of “uncertainties and unpredictable factors.” Foremost of these is that “the Western countries led by the United States have carried out all-round containment and suppression of China.” In such an environment, China’s new Foreign Minister Qin Gang stressed on March 7, “The more unstable the world becomes the more imperative it is for China and Russia to steadily advance their relations.”
In such a context a Chinese decision to arm Russia, then, while lamentable, would demonstrate that the nature of CCP decision-making coupled to Xi’s personal investment in close ties to Moscow have their own dynamic – independent of what we might conceive of as rational geopolitical calculations.