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What would China gain by confronting Russia for what it's doing in Ukraine?

https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2022/02/26/asia-pacific/politics-diplomacy-asia-pacific/us-china-intelligence-russia-ukraine/

The article states that U.S. diplomats urged China to help avert the war in Ukraine, but what I don't understand is what does China have to gain by doing so? Russia invading Europe is the best thing that can happen to China since the U.S. will have its hands tied in dealing with Russia instead of China in the South China sea, and it makes Russia seem like a much bigger threat in the eyes of the public countering the recent efforts by U.S. media to paint China as a bigger evil and threat to the rest of the world.

So what would China gain in doing so?

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3 Answers 3

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China is interested in upholding the concept of Westphalian sovereignty, the principle that other nations do not interfere with the internal matters of a nation. In recent years, Western governments have begun to argue for a right to interfere in sovereign nations under the Responsibility to Protect.

China is also interested in discouraging Western-inspired independence/democracy movements, so they are somewhat torn. Hence their abstention in the UNSC.

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China's best bet is to boil their frog slowly without it waking up. I.e. one day they want to be the biggest meanest country around and no one will have noticed. To put it more kindly: they want to resume what they see as their rightful place in the sun, being a superpower. Which is what they were until the 1500s.

There are certainly advantages to them from Putin's current warmongering. China's own questionable actions aren't very much under the spotlight and they are being courted, rather than pressured against. Taiwan would be a lot easier to invade right now (except they aren't probably ready yet).
Last, they may get a weakened Russia driven into their arms, as a junior, needy partner, but still with juicy weapon technology to be transferred.

At the same time they can't benefit from:

  • Western countries hashing out together a concerted plan to punish Russia. Why, it might be China next time.

  • The potential for re-energized NATO spending, to reach the 2% limit for example. This really hasn't been realistic since the 90s. Now?

  • A NATO alliance that has, for now, forgotten its days of maximum disunity under Trump and is actually acting together. Ditto with the EU forging a difficult common foreign policy for once.

  • If Putin doesn't pull off his Ukraine takeover very cleanly this doesn't necessarily bode much good for a Taiwan adventure of their own. At least not until they power up considerably - Taiwan is smaller and China bigger, but Taiwan's invasion requires an amphibious operation, which is way more challenging and obvious than Russia's convenient pre-positioned surrounding of Ukraine on 3 sides for "training purposes only". An indigestible Ukraine would certainly strengthen Taiwanese resolve.

China runs some benefits, but not a few risks, from military adventurism that it doesn't control. WW3 - not going to happen - is just as bad for them as for everyone else.

And most of all, this risks forcing them to declare for one side, rather than the other. Their ideological sympathy may align more with Putin's but that's not to whom Chinese factories are busy selling stuff. Now that Putin is the bad guy does China want to get too associated with it? Why not pretend to be a responsible, reasonable country instead? Talks about "understandable security concerns" and "need to get back to the negotiating table" plays to both sides and doesn't cost much.

According to a readout from China's foreign ministry, Lavrov told Wang the invasion was precipitated by the inability of the U.S. and NATO to uphold commitments made under a complicated truce agreement called the Minsk Protocol.

Examining the strategic alignment between China and Russia Wang responded ambiguously. "China respects each country's sovereignty and territorial integrity," he said. "At the same time, we also see the Ukraine problem has a complex and particular historical state of affairs and we understand Russia's reasonable concern on security issues."

But Wang also stressed that China wanted "dialogue and negotiation," rather than military means, to solve tensions. "China's position is to thoroughly cast aside a Cold War mentality," he said.

It's doubtful China will confront Russia - that is indeed wishful thinking - but it's also not obvious it will help Putin much either. What it will certainly do is watch very closely how much the West is willing to actually do to counter Ukraine's invasion: that's very Taiwan-relevant.

Proof is in the pudding. China abstained from voting on the UN motion to "regret Russian actions" in the UN Security council on February 25th, which is not all the same thing as voting against that condemnation.

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  • Very good answer. But doesn't the situation work for China anyways? They get to sell more to Russia because of Western punishment. Feb 27, 2022 at 14:57
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China would gain very little from helping the US in this matter. It would earn some gratitude, but it would be hard to turn this into the US and its allies stopping complaining about Chinese human right violations. It would also tend to make the US feel that its opinions matter on the world stage; China seems to want to demonstrate that the days of US power are passing.

Helping Russia in this matter shows the US that its opinions don't matter much to the Chinese government. It also helps legitimise Chinese plans to take over Taiwan, however they develop.

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    In addition, back in 1969, China seemed to want to take back Outer Manchuria, which is currently part of Russia. The border dispute is nominally resolved, but some nationalists undoubtedly wanted more, and if at some point it seemed possible to win a border war with Russia without widespread destruction (e.g. from the use of nuclear weapons), then Russia's own actions could give them precedent.
    – Obie 2.0
    Feb 26, 2022 at 18:04
  • @Obie2.0 Interesting. I guess if Russia cedes Outer Manchuria to China in the near future we'll know more about what China got by siding with Russia against Ukraine.
    – Just Me
    Feb 26, 2022 at 18:13
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    @JustMe - Russia is very unlikely to cede a portion of its territory simply because China abstained from condemning it when it likely would have done so anyway, particularly while it is trying to take more territory.
    – Obie 2.0
    Feb 26, 2022 at 18:17
  • @Obie2.0 Oh, I dunno. Were I Putin, I'd trade some Outer Manchurian steppe for Ukraine and maybe the Baltics and perhaps even a bit of Poland. This answer seems to be evidence China did quite a bit more than simply abstain from condemning Russia's acts.
    – Just Me
    Feb 26, 2022 at 18:22
  • @JustMe Putin pushed through a constitutional amendment in 2020 that, amongst other things, banned ceding territory to foreign powers. "Trading" this way with China would thus create a constitutional crisis regardless of potential profits. I would argue that is not a risk Putin would be willing to take in current situation. Feb 28, 2022 at 6:14

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