20.07.23 China Review

Proxy War Dynamics: China sees Russia more as an agent of its own confrontation with the US than as an ally or partner

In the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, China appears to be treading a delicate path, positioning itself more as a challenger to the United States than an outright ally of Russia. While Beijing offers practical and political support to Russia, it maintains a certain distance by emphasising its commitment to territorial integrity, refraining from recognizing Russia's occupation of Ukrainian territories, including Crimea. Behind closed doors, Chinese elites view Russia's conflict as an indirect clash between the US and China, a prelude to potential broader confrontations in the future. As a consequence, a decisive Russian defeat is an unacceptable outcome for Beijing, as it could leave China to face Washington alone. Despite recognising the risks of aligning itself with an 'irrational' and weak Russia, Beijing believes that the benefits of an unequal partnership, where Russia is bound to China as a 'little brother,' outweigh the potential downsides. China perceives the standoff between Russia and the ‘collective west' as a valuable 'training ground' to analyse the risks and potential scenarios in its own future confrontation with the West. One key lesson learned by China so far is that, in Europe, security considerations and strategic alliances take precedence over economic dependencies. In the event of a conflict, Western countries are likely to join US-led sanctions, even at a high cost. Thus, Beijing sees the need to establish a secure system of economic partnership, to reduce its reliance on Western markets.

From the Russian standpoint, there is a strong conviction that China is the country's primary ally in the face of Western opposition, a belief propagated by pro-Chinese official discourse that depicts an image of 'unlimited friendship.' However, the reality in China appears to be more nuanced. While officially regarding Russia as a partner and ally, China continues to maintain a certain distance.

Since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, China has adhered to a consistent balancing policy. On the one hand, Beijing refuses to recognise Russian jurisdiction over the occupied territories of Ukraine, including Crimea, and expresses support for the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity. On the other hand, China stresses the importance of respecting the security interests of all parties involved and attributes the root cause of the war to NATO’s expansion eastward.

Russia's portrayal of the war in Ukraine as an anti-imperialist war, an instrument of confrontation with the West, resonates with Chinese society, especially when it draws parallels between NATO's expansion in Eastern Europe and American actions in the Asia-Pacific region. In China, concerns over the 'NATO-isation' of the Asia-Pacific region are prevalent, particularly after the US openly acknowledged its goal to contain China and actively formed new security blocs near China’s borders, such as QUAD (a quadripartite security agreement, which includes Australia, India, US, and Japan) and AUKUS (a trilateral pact signed by Australia, the US, and UK). 

Therefore, although there is generally a rather sceptical view of Russia's military actions in Ukraine within Chinese society, significant support also exists for the idea that China is not so much sympathising with Russia's actions and goals as it is uninterested in its defeat. This is because such an outcome would leave China face-to-face with the West, which 'will come after China once it beheads Russia.' It is attitudes such as this and the notion of a 'common enemy,' rather than close objectives and interests, that define the considerable similarity in political rhetoric between Beijing and Moscow. For instance, as Russia increasingly employs the term 'collective West,' China is also using the concept of Meixifang, a collective term used to refer to the US and the West. Nevertheless, by remaining Russia's sole strong partner, Beijing has already secured an important seat at the negotiation table when it comes to bringing an end to the war in Ukraine, while still maintaining a certain distance from Moscow's actions.

In order to comprehend the peculiarities of the attitude of China's political and intellectual elite towards the war in Ukraine, experts from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) have studied the discourses prevalent in China at both the official level and within the academic and expert community (they conducted over 30 interviews with prominent Chinese experts and strategists). They identified four main narratives regarding the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

The first narrative: America is using the war in Ukraine to encircle China, but it has failed to unify the world around itself. Within this approach, experts depict the war in Ukraine as an indirect conflict between China and the US, in which both sides gain advantages from their positions. They believe that Washington is using the crisis to strengthen unity with its allies in the Indo-Pacific and Euro-Atlantic regions. However, from their perspective, the onset of the war reflects the inadequacy of US-led institutions and their limited capacity for containment. They also argue that while the US can still rally its traditional allies, they have failed to gain sympathy from countries across Africa, Latin America, and Asia. In this sense, China is emerging as the primary competitor to the US when it comes to the affections of countries in the Global South.

The second narrative revolves around the belief that, by supporting Russia, China stands to gain more than it would lose, effectively binding Russia to China as a junior partner. Chinese debates regarding Russia encompass two contradictory perspectives. Almost all the Chinese intellectuals surveyed by ECFR expressed dissatisfaction with Russia's clumsy and ineffective military actions, even going as far as to suggest that Russia no longer deserves its great power status. At the same time, they recognise that structural logic closely links China and Russia. According to one prominent expert, the political destinies of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin are intertwined as they share a common goal: to reshape the international order to make it safer and more comfortable for non-democratic and illiberal regimes. Therefore, China will continue to provide Russia with an economic and diplomatic lifeline. Ultimately, China benefits from the Russia-Ukraine war, which places Russia in a more dependent position, enabling China to present the US as the 'warmonger’. Voices more sceptical of Moscow express concern that Putin's irrationality may one day become a liability for Beijing, which has no interest in cutting ties with the West, too abruptly. Nevertheless, the advantages of this patron-client partnership outweigh these concerns.

The third narrative asserts that the war in Ukraine has neither increased nor decreased the likelihood of a conflict over Taiwan. Although officials stress the point that 'Taiwan is not Ukraine' and that analogies are inappropriate, the conflict in Ukraine serves as one of the primary projections for a possible situation involving Taiwan. Some Chinese experts note that the US and NATO have refrained from getting heavily involved in the conflict, leading them to believe that the West would also seek to avoid a direct confrontation with China over Taiwan. Instead, Washington is likely to arm Taiwan just as they have Ukraine and attempt to transfer military responsibilities to its allies in the region, primarily Japan. As with Ukraine, Taiwan is not seen as an independent agent but rather as a pawn in the superpowers' game. In general, the intellectuals surveyed do not rule out the possibility of war over Taiwan, although they currently consider it unlikely.

The fourth narrative stresses that economic interdependence between the West and China will not protect Beijing in an escalating confrontation or potential conflict, prompting the need to prepare for sanctions. One of the main lessons Chinese observers have learnt from the war in Ukraine is that politics and security are more important than economics. For decades, both Chinese and Western elites believed that economic interdependence would serve as a deterrent, preventing open conflicts. However, the war in Ukraine has made many question this notion. For example, Germany's energy dependence on Russia has not played a decisive role in Berlin's decisions. In the event of a conflict between China and the US, it should not be expected that the economic interests of American allies (such as Germany) would outweigh geopolitical considerations.

As a result, in the face of unprecedented sanctions against Russia, Chinese authorities have begun to conduct 'stress tests' to model how the country's internal market would behave under various sanction scenarios. The new economic strategy suggests that while international markets will continue to play an important role in the country's development, Beijing will become much more selective about foreign investment and focus on increasing its economic autonomy. Some experts propose the creation of a sanctions-resistant network of international cooperation, including the internationalisation of the yuan and the establishment of smaller banks not tied to Western financial infrastructure.

In conclusion, China generally lacks strong pro-Russian sentiment (which is more evident in countries like India), and its partnership with Russia is primarily viewed through the prism of its escalating confrontation with the US. From the Chinese perspective, Russia plays a role as an instrument in China's rivalry with the US, just as Russia views Ukraine as a proxy agent of the West in its confrontation with the US.