Akshay Singh is an international affairs and security scholar and a non-resident research fellow at the Council on International Policy.
Russia’s invasion has undeniably placed China in a diplomatically precarious position. On Feb. 4, Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin jointly heralded the start of a “new era,” which has thus far included a 30-year deal for Russia to supply gas through a new pipeline and a US$20-billion contract to sell 100 million tons of coal to China. Beijing also promised to relax import restrictions on Russian wheat, a deal revealed just before Russia launched its attacks.
Unsurprisingly, China has sought to blame the U.S. for Ukraine’s predicament and has avoided calling Russia’s actions an “invasion.” And while some Chinese banks may comply with aspects of Western sanctions, the Communist Party of China has also officially criticized the measures.
But Beijing has also publicly professed it respects international norms regarding non-interference (despite evidence to the contrary), and has abstained from two United Nations Security Council votes concerning Ukraine. It is, however, likely a mistake to conclude it is turning on Russia. While the two nuclear powers are far from allies, one thing is increasingly clear: they share fundamental views on the international system and their relative positions with respect to the West.
One potential reason cited for China’s behaviour is Taiwan, which the Communist Party considers to be an inalienable part of its territory – a position somewhat similar to Mr. Putin’s rhetoric around Ukraine. It has been unclear to China precisely how the West would respond if it were to use military force to settle disputes. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has now presented China with a rare opportunity to observe how Western democracies would do so and what tools they can use to mete out punishment. China also has an opportunity to observe fault lines within the West and calibrate its tool kit accordingly, making it increasingly important for Canada and its partners to respond to Russia in a swift, meaningful and united manner.
Widely held views around China’s current position in the context of a potential invasion of Taiwan might be a bit simplistic. There are some similarities between China’s and Russia’s positions on Taiwan and Ukraine respectively, but what has also been laid bare is how much they differ: Ukraine is well-recognized internationally as a sovereign state, but only a handful of countries officially recognize Taiwan. That said, Taiwan has received new support from the West, and many agree that a Chinese invasion remains unlikely in the short-term. Taiwan is an important semiconductor powerhouse which purchases U.S. military equipment, and despite an official U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity” on whether Washington would militarily support Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has said that the U.S. is training Taiwanese troops.
While Taiwan is clearly a significant part of China’s strategic goals, Beijing is also engaged in disputes with 16 other countries over land and/or sea borders. While some are more problematic than others, it is not inconceivable that China will eventually seek to settle – through force – certain disputes it views as integral to its national-security interests, as it has done with India and Vietnam.
So China is watching closely as divisions between Western powers become clear during the invasion in Ukraine. Efforts by Italy and Belgium to create carve-outs in sanctions that would protect some of its industries, for example, will not have gone unnoticed. Initial resistance from Germany, Italy and Hungary around cutting Russia off from the global payments messaging system SWIFT also laid bare the importance of both resource linkages and leadership ties in the decision-making of certain states. There has also been disagreement in Europe on how to support Ukraine militarily, with Hungary vowing to “stay out” of the conflict.
The current sanctions approach has likely encouraged Beijing, given how much more deeply it is entwined in the global economy than Russia. China has not been afraid to use economic statecraft – including through sanctions targeting countries such as Australia – and will likely do so again. It has also sought to strengthen its influence in international organizations to further its own interests.
It is critical that Western leaders are completely aligned in their response to Russia. A unified effort to push back against belligerence will not only send a message to Moscow, but to their counterparts in Beijing as well. Raising the cost of engaging in such conflict will thus be extremely important – lest we risk future transgressions, out of a perception that the West is weak and lacks resolve.
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