The unfolding crisis in Ukraine is being watched closely not just by Moscow, Washington, Kyiv, and Brussels, but also by Beijing. The Chinese Communist Party’s interests in the crisis are complicated and often contradictory, but it likely believes that the situation presents more risks than opportunities. The potential pitfalls are numerous: Economic disruptions from the crisis could pose dangers for China’s domestic economy, and therefore its politics, while a poorly timed offensive could distract from its Olympic plans as the Russo-Georgian War did during the 2008 Beijing Olympics—all while pushing the world further into rival blocs.
So far, the CCP has generally attempted to disassociate itself from the crisis, at least publicly, and has adopted a cautious, calculated approach. The People’s Daily, the authoritative mouthpiece of the CCP, stopped updating its Russia-affairs section in early November, likely to maintain strict message discipline. Other Chinese state media and, more importantly, the Chinese foreign ministry have generally refrained from commenting on the crisis or have largely stuck with matter-of-fact reporting.
The relatively quiet response from the CCP does not mean the party has failed to indicate its preferences. The CCP strongly desires that Putin delay any escalation at least until after the Olympic opening ceremony and the Xi-Putin bilateral summit conclude around February 4, and potentially until after the Olympics conclude on February 20. (Then again, if Putin escalates during the Olympics, it might deflect attention from Beijing’s ongoing cultural genocide in Xinjiang, censorship of athletes, ubiquitous electronic surveillance, etc.) Xi and Putin are expected to issue a major announcement at their in-person bilateral summit, but an escalation before the meeting could make Putin too toxic a figure and lead to the meeting’s cancellation.
Even as the CCP has likely discouraged Putin from intervening at an inopportune moment, the party has also signaled its broad support for Putin and opposition to constitutional democracy. The People’s Daily published an article series in November that attempted to discredit the U.S. intelligence community just as the United States was sounding the alarm about Russia’s military buildup along the Ukrainian border. Chinese state media have also criticized claims of a “so-called ‘Russian invasion of Ukraine,’” echoing the Kremlin’s false claim that Russian forces are not and have never been deployed in the Donbas. The Chinese foreign ministry has thrown its weight behind Moscow, saying “Russia’s legitimate security concerns should be taken seriously and addressed.” So far China has largely “leaned to one side” and supported Putin’s position, and it will likely maintain this posture.
Although Taiwan is not Ukraine and their contexts are completely different, the CCP and the People’s Liberation Army will nevertheless watch how the United States and its allies respond to Russian aggression against Ukraine for any lessons vis-à-vis Taiwan. While there’s debate about whether the sanctions regime NATO is threatening against Russia is sufficient to deter it, there’s not really a comparable debate about China: It’s so large a player in the global economy that it would be much less vulnerable to such threats. But the military and political actions of NATO, both in support of Ukraine and in strengthening NATO’s eastern member states, may be instructive to Beijing.
Beijing’s muted opposition to an invasion is not grounded in any concern about the potentially catastrophic human costs of warfare in Ukraine. Rather, Beijing fears that its economic, geopolitical, and, most importantly, domestic political interests may be harmed by large-scale war in Europe. In a worst-case scenario for Xi, the knock-on effects would severely complicate his plans for the Party Congress in late 2022, when he will almost surely seek to become party-secretary-for-life.
The most likely outcome for China from an escalation in Ukraine is economic pain. Violence in Europe would send commodity prices higher, increase China’s energy import bill, and pose sanctions risks for Chinese corporations. China is already struggling with its own slow-moving real estate debt crisis and Omicron-related shutdowns, so any more economic turmoil would be extremely unwelcome.
A new offensive in Ukraine would also likely exacerbate geopolitical divides, forcing the CCP into an uncomfortable choice between its preferred security companion—Putin’s Russia—and its trade and investment partners in the United States and Europe. As American diplomats call on China to help resolve the crisis, the CCP’s passivity in the face of mass bloodshed could lead to guilt by association. It is entirely conceivable, perhaps even likely, that the free world will be more unified at the end the crisis than before it began, causing countries across Europe to reevaluate their relationship with China.
At the same time, the CCP could see an escalation in Ukraine as an opportunity to secure some benefits from Russia. Putin’s alienation from the West will leave him even more dependent on China for export markets, security, foreign investment, and political support, thus enabling Beijing to extract greater economic, political, and security concessions from Moscow. The CCP would likely find it much easier to secure bargain prices on Russian commodity exports and the Power of Siberia 2, a proposed Russia-to-China natural gas pipeline. Russia’s growing isolation from the West and dependency on China may also ultimately weaken Mongolian sovereignty, enabling Beijing to exploit that country’s renewable energy potential or even annex regions of the surrounded democracy with Moscow’s tacit approval. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Moscow’s growing dependence on Beijing would likely lead to greater military coordination in the Indo-Pacific. Russian and Chinese air and naval assets may integrate to unprecedented levels, while Moscow could be forced to restrict or even cease military cooperation with India, Vietnam, and other Chinese rivals.
With the Olympics and the Xi-Putin summit fast approaching, the most important factors influencing China’s response will be the scale and timing of Russia’s offensive. It is important to stress that the situation remains uncertain. No one actually knows what Putin will do, the dictator may not have decided himself, and de-escalation remains possible, albeit unlikely.
An escalation in the next few days—that is, before the Olympics—would be a highly risky course of action for Putin, but each additional week of delay also presents risks as more arms and aid shipments arrive in Ukraine and NATO and the EU plan their coordinated responses. If Putin escalates before the opening ceremony, all bets about China’s response are off. Xi could cancel his planned bilateral meeting with Putin, or, more likely, the Russian autocrat would cancel the summit, citing his need to remain home and manage the crisis. This path would almost surely lead the two sides to delay any announcement regarding the Power of Siberia 2 natural gas pipeline and would have unpredictable consequences for Sino-Russian relations.
Other issues would arise in the weeks and months following a significant escalation. Beijing largely complied with sanctions put in place after Putin’s illegal annexation of Crimea and invasion of the Donbas in 2014. It seems highly unlikely that China would join a new round of sanctions, but the conduct of the war could change the circumstances. There were approximately 30,000 Chinese nationals in Ukraine in 2017, and the indiscriminate bombing of Kyiv or other Ukrainian cities will likely lead to Chinese casualties, which might force a response from Beijing.
The Chinese Communist Party will cautiously attempt to walk a tightrope in the crisis, aiming to preserve its economic ties with the West while capitalizing on Russia’s growing dependency. By aligning itself with Russia, the CCP gains a valuable economic and security partner, but also a potentially destabilizing liability.