More Lessons Learnt than Taught for China on War Anniversary

For all its bluster, Chinese foreign policy may be at a geopolitical crossroads on the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Since last February, China has tried everything to keep itself engaged, albeit unilaterally and uninvited by any member of the international community, with negotiations to end the war. But it has nothing much to show at the end other than the realization that the global isolation is hurting it. Borrowing China’s consistent argument – it is one that Russia believes – that the United States-led West provoked Vladimir Putin until he crossed the Ukrainian border, the problem for China is the narrative remained with the West, not Beijing.

It is the West that did nothing to prevent the war. It promptly imposed sanctions against Russia which the West subsequently turned a blind eye to – the example of how Russian oil takes a global detour to reach the United States is a glaring example. It continued to arm Ukraine, though with defensive and not offensive weapons – meaning thereby the intention was to prolong the war rather than end it. It used Ukraine as a photo-op for the heads of state of European nations. Even the wife of the US president went there. President Joe Biden just couldn’t stop watching the parade of guests and went there himself. Even today, the West and Ukraine are on a daily routine of chats to decide how they will strategise for the ongoing war.

The trading partners of the US and Europe are supporting them, vocally or silently. There has been not much of dissent seeking the US to rein in its ranking policy of allowing the war to go on indefinitely. China is the lone exception. It is not invited at any Western table. It finds itself having to pursue an entirely independent policy on the war. That is the root of the angst in Beijing. They want to belong to a group to show they have ideas to end the war – or at least pretend to have ideas. But nobody is interested. So they tag along, alone. And how? By treating Ukraine as a proxy war against the United States in particular, select portions of the West in general. Far away from Ukraine and with only rhetorical support to Russia, nothing explains China’s policy other than that it wants the war to set the stage for another Cold War.

Despite its anti-American propaganda, China has not really done much to help Russia. It publicly supported Russia over the invasion, calling for a negotiated end to the conflict. President Xi Jinping met with Putin but not Volodymyr Zelenskyy, but that has not stopped China from sending humanitarian aid to Ukraine in the initial months. Aware of the western sanctions against Russia, China ensured that it did not cross the line despite committing itself to its ‘no-limits friendship’ with Russia.

Look at the scenario. The China-US ties are worse than before, thanks to the ill-advised shooting down of a Chinese balloon(s) by the Americans. The Americans raised a bogey that China proposes to supply arms to the Russians, well knowing that Russia has the world’s second largest army in the world, followed by China. China bristled when US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made an issue out of the China-arms-to-Russia theory and issued a warning of serious consequences if ‘lethal’ weapons are supplied to Russia. The brouhaha ended up in a chilled round of diplomacy and exchange of words, but nothing else.

Beijing ramped up its anti-American propaganda thereafter, while the Chinese foreign ministry issued a memorandum to western journalists about American hegemonic intentions. China rounded up its campaign by announcing a deeper relationship with Russia, calling the alliance “as stable as Mount Tai”—to use a Chinese idiom.

So far, it has calibrated its foreign policy vis-à-vis Ukraine to how the world perceives it. A media report analysed thus: “China has walked a fine line: It suspended business when threats to Chinese interests necessitated it, parroting Russian talking points when they aligned with China’s criticism of the U.S., and continuing trade when the environment was conducive. In doing so, China has used the opportunity to further its foreign policy interests at an incredibly uncertain time in the international environment.”

This policy has given it the freedom to do what it really wants: Give no opportunity to the West to criticize Chinese actions, continue to support Russian actions without violating western economic sanctions, and all the while keep chastising the US. Such a policy has only one objective: Treat itself as a strategic rival of the United States and project the image as a policy at every opportunity the Ukraine war creates.

There is no public knowledge so far of China having provided any ‘lethal’ military support to Russia. But there is a logic to the proposition: China would not want to let go of an opportunity to test its current military arsenal even if by proxy by allowing Russia to use it against Ukraine. It may want to observe from close quarters how Russia strategises the war effort, to even theoretically equip Chinese military commanders with data to study how a war is fought—having fought its last war in 1979, nearly all of the Chinese military has never experienced conflict in the last 40-odd years.