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Could China be a partner for the West in managing the Ukraine crisis?

Article by Anastasiya Bayok and Stefan Wolff

March 23, 2022

Could China be a partner for the West in managing the Ukraine crisis?

Talks between China and the US in Rome on 14 March 2022 ended inconclusively, dashing any tentative hopes for enlisting China in western efforts to end the war in Ukraine for now.[1] During these discussions, as well as in an interview the Chinese Ambassador to the United States gave to CBS the following Sunday, Beijing’s position against war and in favour of escalation was reiterated, as well as its long-standing stance “that national sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, including Ukraine, should be respected and protected.”[2]


Add to this that despite a recently announced no-limits partnership, the future direction of Russia-China relations has become more ambiguous as the consequences of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine become clearer.[3] As Ukraine has not only welcomed but also openly called for China to use its influence to stop the war, a potential opportunity for closer cooperation between the West and China should not be dismissed out of hand.[4]


Reform or disruption of the existing order?

Over the past several decades, Russia and China have gradually developed their bilateral relations and become strategic partners, united in their opposition to a US-dominated world order. China’s opposition to the current order is not fundamental, provided it has full access to, and can move freely within, it. China seeks integration into the system both to protect its sovereignty and economic interests and to reshape it gradually according to its own preferences. This does not exclude future domination of the system by China, but it does not make that outcome a foregone conclusion either.


Russia, by contrast, has been fundamentally opposed to the current world order in which its place, role and influence have significantly diminished over the past three decades.[5] Russia aspires to be a rule-setting great power, uninhibited by constraints that curtail its ‘rights’ to invade sovereign states and annex as many territories as it deems necessary for its own security. Russia occupied and subsequently recognised Georgia’s Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions in 2008 and parts of Ukraine’s Donbas in 2014 and 2022, invaded and annexed Crimea in 2014, and is now fighting a war of aggression against Ukraine.


Over the years, China has expressed sympathy for Russia’s dissatisfaction especially with the post-Cold War European security order, often blaming a Cold War mentality for the escalating tensions with the west, Russia’s approach to dealing with this fundamentally contradicts China´s mantra about the importance of the principles of territorial integrity, sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of other states.[6] China may not always be as sincere about this as it would like the rest of the world to believe, but it has never recognised the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia or the Russian annexation of Crimea.


No less important, in this context, are China´s aspirations for stability in the international system which is critical to its own economic development. Disruption of trade routes, threats to its own overseas investments, a hike in global oil and gas prices are all detrimental to China. The effectiveness of western sanctions against Russia and the potential of secondary sanctions against China if Xi were to support Putin also should give China pause for thought how it can best achieve security and stability in Europe where it has both long-term economic interests and solid investments across the continent.[7]


China-Russia relations in troubled waters

The reality behind the almost perfect bilateral relationship between Moscow and Beijing that the two countries have projected to the outside world is deeply complex. Mutual distrust, power asymmetry, and clear antagonism in some areas pose significant challenges to what is often more an alliance of convenience than a truly strategic partnership among equals.


Twice now has Russia disrespected China’s hosting of the Olympics. The 2008 war with Georgia started during the Olympic summer games in Beijing and the war in Ukraine began just as the 2022 Olympic Winter Games had finished and the Paralympic Games were about to start. Such high-profile international events are hugely important for how China projects its own image at home and abroad. That its ‘closest strategic partner’ chose to disregard this cannot have been lost on China.


Internationally, China’s position is also becoming more tenuous as Russia’s war in Ukraine continues and it humanitarian, and not just economic and political, consequences become apparent. Being associated with Russia’s aggression, if only by inaction, is likely to erode China’s self-image of a defender of international norms and damage its bilateral relationships with many other countries. Chinese diplomatic and political tradition of not condemning Russia publicly has long been at the core of Sino-Russian bilateral relations, but it soon risks that China will find itself only in the company of a select few countries that still openly side with Russia at the UN, like Syria, North Korea, Eritrea, and Belarus.[8]


A sign of things to come?

While China has so far abstained from votes in the UN General Assembly and the Security Council, which is more in line with its traditionally rather reserved foreign policy that was also on display in 2008 and 2014, there are some indications of a rethink in Beijing. Just days before the war, China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, appealed to all sides involved in the conflict at the Munich Security Conference to use diplomatic and peaceful ways to resolve it, emphasising that Ukrainian “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity should be respected and safeguarded” and Russian concerns should be taken into consideration.[9] One day after the start of the war, Wang Yi, during his phone conversations with Liz Truss, the UK Foreign Secretary, Josep Borrell, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs, and Emmanuel Bonne, an Advisor to French President Emmanuel Macron, emphasised that what was going on in Ukraine is something China did not want to see.[10]


President Xi himself reiterated China’s stance on “maximum restraint” in Ukraine during his virtual meeting with Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.[11] The three leaders agreed to work together in facilitating the dialogue between Russia and Ukraine and to combine their efforts to deescalate the crisis.[12] While there have been examples of cooperation between China and the EU on economic connectivity issues in the Western Balkans and in Central Asia, this is the first attempt of involving China in European security issues.[13] This also highlights options for finding cooperation arrangements between China and the West on particular issues like the Ukraine war outside the fraught relations between China and the US.


Shipments of Chinese smartphones from brands like Xiaomi, Huawei, and Oppo, to Russia has been cut in half.[14] China has refused to supply aircraft parts to Russia after western sanctions hit.[15] Even if those are reactions purely motivated by economic factors, it nevertheless, demonstrates the limits of China’s support to Russia by all means. This is even more obvious when it comes to the flat-out denial by China that it had received any Russian requests for military aid.[16]


A final sign of a potential shift in Beijing’s thinking is the way in which Chinese state media covers the war in Ukraine. While there is still clear evidence of censorship and a favouring of (pro-) Russian positions, in marked contrast to Moscow’s approach, Chinese State TV, for example, presents both Russian and Ukrainian positions on the war, provides analysis of foreign media (including French, German, Iranian, and Japanese) on the war in Ukraine, and presents actual footage of the humanitarian catastrophe that is unfolding in Ukraine.[17] Similarly, video messages of Zelenskiy receive widespread coverage in Chinese mass media.[18]


It is important to remember in all of this that China has yet to openly condemn Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and to take any steps in public to end the war other than calling for mutual restraint. This may or may not happen in the near future or ever, but there are subtle signs of a Chinese shift away from an unconditional partnership with Russia. Nonetheless, China appears to keep hedging its bets. This in itself is a problem because it prolongs the war and worsens the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries. China’s position could be a reflection of its fundamental commitment to non-interference (which would be the optimistic reading) or because it sees benefits for itself in a continuation of the war, with Russia and the West weakening each other at manageable costs for Beijing while also creating significant opportunities for China.


The latter, which appears to be the more widely shared view in Western capitals, would mean that China cannot really be a partner for the West in ending the war in Ukraine unless Chinese cost-benefit calculations can be changed. If this is achieved through coercive measures, such as secondary sanctions, it would at best be a one-off ‘partnership’ and probably be quite limited in scope and time. If it were achieved through cooperative measures, such as less overt antagonism, less combative public rhetoric, and focusing also on other areas where relations could be improved, it might have a longer-term positive impact on international peace and security. Finding such common ground will be difficult, but given the gravity of the situation, it is still worth exploring.


For the sake of Ukraine, the opportunity, however slim, to cooperate with China on stopping Russia’s aggression should not be discarded out of hand. The fact that Washington and Beijing both “underscored the importance of maintaining open lines of communication between the United States and China” at their meeting in Rome indicates that this opportunity is still there to be used.[19]


Anastasiya Bayok, Centre for OSCE Research, Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg


Stefan Wolff, Institute for Conflict, Cooperation and Security, University of Birmingham


Image by U.S. Army Photo/Sgt. Mikki L. Sprenkle


[1] DW, US and China hold high level talks about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, March 2022,

[2] Financial Times, China ‘will do everything’ to de-escalate war, ambassador says, March 2022,

[3] Tony Munroe, Andrew Osborn and Humeyra Pamuk, China, Russia partner up against West at Olympics summit, Reuters, February 2022,; Gideon Rachman, Xi Jinping faces a fateful decision on Ukraine, Financial Times, March 2022,

[4] Reed Standish and RFE/RL, Will China force Russia to stop the war in Ukraine?,, March 2022,; Stefan Wolff, Ukraine invasion: what the west needs to do now – expert view, The Conversation, February 2022,

[5] Stefan Wolff & Tetyana Malyarenko, The Russian Threat Against Ukraine: A Long History and an Uncertain Future, Wilson Center, January 2022,

[6] Rodion Why China thinks the West is to blame for Russia’s war in Ukraine, Ebbighausen, DW, March 2022,

[7] Pavel Polityuk, Natalia Zinets and Omer Berberoglu, Biden plans first Europe visit since Ukraine invasion as refugees surpass 3 million, Reuters, March 2022,

[8] Julian Borger, UN votes to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and calls for withdrawal, The Guardian, March 2022,

[9] GT staff reporters, Chinese FM Wang Yi calls for diplomatic solution, not hyping war over Ukraine issue, Global Times, Febuary 2022,

[10] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, Wang Yi Expounds China’s Five-Point Position on the Current Ukraine Issue, February 2022,

[11] Reuters, China’s for ‘maximum restraint’ in Ukraine, March 2022,

[12] Press and Information Office of the Federal Government, Chancellor Scholz talks to French President Macron and China’s President Xi Jinping, March 2022,

[13] Stefan Wolff, China’s Belt and Road Initiative: Implications for the OSCe, OSCE Network, March 2021,; Anastasiya Bayok, OSCE Yearbook 2019, page 273-286, Nomos eLibrary, 2020,

[14] Su Yu and Edward White, Chinese smartphone shipments to Russia plunge as rouble collapses, Financial Times, March 2022,

[15] Reuters, Russia says China refuses to supply aircraft parts after sanctions, March 2022,

[16] Simone McCarthy and Jeremy Herb, Top US and Chinese officials hold high-stakes meeting in Rome, CNN, March 2022,,%22defining%20moment%22%20for%20China%20and%20the%2021st%20century; Via AP news wire, US official: Russia seeking military aid from China, Independent, March 2022,

[17] Kai Wang, Ukraine: How China is censoring online discussion of the war, BBC Reality Check, March 2022,; CCTV-4 Chinese International Channel, Media Focus Ukraine is in a crisis of war, CCTV Network, February 2022,; CCTV-13 News Channel, Ukraine is concerned about the situation in Ukraine, Odessa curfew, government will issue “war bonds“, CCTV Network, February 2022,

[18] CCTV-4 Chinese International Channel, Zelensky released a video: The war should end and sit down and negotiate, CCTV Network, March 2022,

[19] The White House, Readout of National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s Meeting with Politburo Member Yang Jiechi, March 2022,

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