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China Walking Fine Line in Reacting to Ukraine War

Historian Justin M. Jacobs answers our questions about China’s position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine

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China is walking a fine line between the Western outrage over the Russian invasion of Ukraine and its lucrative trading relationship with the Russian Federation. On Friday, March 18, after a two-hour call with Chinese leader Xi Jinping, US President Joe Biden warned of “consequences” if China gave material support to Russia's invasion of Ukraine. 

What does China have to lose—or gain—in this conflict? What might China do next? And why does it matter?  

We asked Justin M. Jacobs, a historian of China, to answer our questions. Jacobs is the author of The Compensations of Plunder: How China Lost Its Treasures and Xinjiang and the Modern Chinese State. He teaches courses on ancient and modern China, serves as editor of The Silk Road journal, and hosts Beyond Huaxia, a podcast on East Asian history.  

Q. NATO hoped that China might condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine and perhaps even play a role in ending the conflict. But instead, Beijing refused to condemn Russia's attack and will not join the international sanctions. It looks more and more like China has chosen sides and will be backing Russia. Is this true, and why?   

Like all politicians, Xi Jinping will pursue a diplomatic path that he perceives will lead to maximum benefit and leverage for his country. China stands to gain very little by joining the chorus of American and European leaders who are condemning Russia and imposing sanctions on its economy, as the war in Ukraine does not directly threaten one of its major political allies and whose human tragedy is far removed from the daily lives of the Chinese people. 

But neither does Beijing want to hurt its economic or political ties to the United States and Europe. The awkward result is reflected in the hedging pronouncements broadcast by the state-controlled Chinese media: expressing vague and increasingly lukewarm support for Russia’s political agenda, regretting the loss of civilian lives, and encouraging a peaceful resolution to the conflict through mediation.  

Q. In the grand scheme of things, what does China stand to gain from the Ukraine-Russia War?   

To the extent that American and European sanctions succeed in isolating and devastating the Russian economy, China stands to gain by asserting itself as the senior geopolitical partner in its bilateral relationship with Moscow. Russia now needs a lifeline to a developed economy, and China has suddenly become its only realistic alternative to Europe and America. Beijing will gain considerable leverage over Russia once Moscow is dependent on Chinese financial institutions and markets to survive. Condemning Russian aggression and joining in the sanctions will only serve to foreclose this attractive opportunity for Beijing to turn a pariah Russia into its own dependent satellite state, akin to a much larger version of North Korea.  

Q. On March 13, Russia said it was counting on China to help it withstand the blow to its economy from Western sanctions. And since China is the biggest trading partner of both Russia and Ukraine, and the largest importer of crude oil and natural gas in the world, this would be a game changer. How likely do you think it is? And how would it affect China-Western relations?  

How far China will go to soften the impact of American and European sanctions on Russia will probably be determined by how strongly Washington reacts to such a move. If China helps too much, it may lead to sanctions of its own—and that would cancel out any benefit or leverage attained by helping Russia. So it is going to be a delicate balancing act for Beijing.

In reinvigorating the NATO alliance and revealing how effective American economic and political sanctions can be on a major world power, Russia has ultimately produced a net loss in geopolitical and economic prestige and power for China, regardless of the short terms gains that Beijing may make in throwing an economic lifeline to Russia. Chinese leaders carry more traumatic historical baggage than their Russian counterparts and value stability far more, thus they are unlikely to risk incurring similar sanctions and ostracization by acting too boldly—now even more than before.  

Q. Even before the Ukraine invasion, Russia and China have both faced strong Western criticism over human rights. Can you give us an overview of human rights issues that China is accused of violating?  

At the most general level, the Chinese Communist Party repeatedly violates the basic provisions of China’s own constitution, which guarantees freedom of speech, assembly, and a pluralistic democratic system. We see evidence of such violations all the time, from detained political activists and artists in Hong Kong to silenced athletes like tennis star Peng Shuai, who recanted her allegations of sexual abuse by a high-ranking Party member after what appeared to be a period of house arrest and almost certainly veiled threats of retaliation against her and her family.

The most egregious and far-reaching violation of human rights, however, is the systematic program of cultural genocide being carried out toward the Turkic-speaking Uyghur Muslims of Xinjiang in China’s far northwest. This program is known to include intrusive surveillance, arbitrary incarceration in “re-education” labor camps, forced linguistic and cultural assimilation, incentives for sterilization and marriage to Chinese spouses, and many other dystopian horrors not seen on such a scale since the Holocaust, absent only mass homicide.

Q. It’s difficult to talk about China without asking about the new Covid outbreak there. China has locked down entire cities, conducted mass testing, and quarantined citizens. Obviously, these measures would not work here in the United States. Can you talk a little about the Chinese government’s power and the mindset of the Chinese population?

It is always hard to try and divine what “the Chinese people” think, for the simple reason that they do not have freedom of expression or access to a free press. But generally speaking, it is becoming increasingly clear that a zero-tolerance approach to Covid is not sustainable over the long-term. Since the virus cannot be “defeated” and we can only learn to live with it, Beijing is either going to have to swallow its pride and vaccinate its entire population with more effective Western vaccines, or it is eventually going to have to accept the devastating consequences of runaway virgin pandemic infections without adequate medical facilities to care for the sick and dying. Neither option is desirable, as either one would severely undermine the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party to rule China.