Where does China stand on the Russia-Ukraine conflict?
On February 23, 2014, Russian President Vladimir Putin authorised his troops to undertake a “special military operation” across the border into Ukraine, thus starting the Russia-Ukraine conflict. In response, the US and the EU have piled incremental sanctions on Russia, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) has stopped just short of intervention. China, which shares a “comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era”, has adopted a relatively restrained stance on the conflict, and the nature and reasoning of its stance is still being deciphered across the world. China’s response to the conflict has been more or less consistent, although characterised by ambiguous rhetoric and cautious action. Chinese president Xi Jinping delivers a speech via video link to the opening ceremony of the Bo’ao Forum For Asia. In the wake of the conflict, Beijing presented to the world its new outlook on international security, the most important of which is the Global Security Initiative (GSI), announced by China’s President Xi Jinping during his speech to the Boao Forum for Asia in March. Though the larger context for the GSI is to provide a counter to the US-led Indo-Pacific security narrative, the specific component of indivisible security has been taken from the Eastern European context.
China has tried to paint its stance on the conflict in the colours of objectivity, neutrality, and independence. A Norwegian Navy Sailor aboard the Royal Norwegian Navy corvette Skjold stands lookout during an air defence drill at the Baltops 22 exercise in the Baltic Sea on June 6. In the United Nations, China has never voted against Russia on any of the resolutions; choosing mostly to abstain, except in the case of the General Assembly resolution in April to suspend Russia from the UN Human Rights Council, which it voted against. Perhaps the most significant aspect of China’s position is its identification of the US-led West as the main instigator of a long-standing problem that has led to the present crisis. China has asserted that the West in general, and the US in particular, is squarely to be blamed for the fallout. For China, Russia and Ukraine are both friendly countries, both significant constituents of the Soviet Union, Communist China’s ideological partner. The significance of Ukraine for China is not just quantitative but also qualitative.
China also has a political reason to be sensitive to Ukraine’s sovereignty being challenged by Russia in its ethnic minority-dominated border regions. Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left) and China’s State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi pose for a picture during a meeting in Guilin, China on March 22, 2021. Historically, all major power rivalries have been between continental and maritime powers, where the former are not just located away from the sea but are also away from the social, economic, and political influences it brings in, today in the form of cosmopolitanism, market economy, and liberal democracy. Russia and China aligned in the initial period of the Cold War and were picking up the pieces when the Cold War ended when it dawned on them that the US-led West was seeking to undermine their potential while simultaneously facilitating their transition from continental to maritime powers. The relative decline of the West after the global financial crisis fuelled their confidence, and they started building the blocks of emerging multipolar orders such as BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). Here, sailors on board the USS Ross - an American ship under a NATO ballistic missile defence plan - leave the Norfolk Naval Base in Virginia. At the level of strategy, they erected countermeasures to the American Ballistic Missile Defence system; at the military level they engaged in intense cooperation and joint training.
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