While the war in Ukraine is not a world war, it is a far-reaching international crisis and contest, drawing in many countries through diplomacy, sanctions regimes and support measures. China is seen as a key actor, thanks both to its sizeable global influence, its increasingly close relationship with Russia, and its tense rivalry with the United States. So where exactly does Beijing stand, and why? After more than one month of war, I perceive China to be pursuing a policy of strategic ambiguity, driven by an awkward combination of irreconcilable international interests. And in a politically important year for the Chinese leader Xi Jinping, this approach is unlikely to change.

On 4 February, Vladimir Putin met Xi Jinping in Beijing for a very public affirmation of the Sino-Russian partnership. It was therefore strange when, just two weeks later, Beijing appeared unaware of Moscow’s intentions to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine. No Chinese citizens in Ukraine were evacuated in advance, and China called for the Minsk Protocol to be upheld just a day before Putin said it no longer existed.

In the first days following the Russian invasion, Chinese foreign policy statements sounded confused, exasperated even. Many speculated whether Beijing was backtracking on its support for Russia, citing the fact that China abstained from, rather than opposed, a UN resolution criticising Russian aggression. Major Chinese commercial banks and the Beijing-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank all announced that they were suspending transactions with Russia, at least temporarily. A pause on China’s imports of Russian coal was similarly seen as a subtle rebuke to Moscow.

Another view has held that Beijing was in fact made aware of the Kremlin’s plans but refused to trust or act on intelligence from Washington. China instead alerted Russia to the fact that the US was seeking to “sow discord”, and reportedly asked that Putin’s “peacekeeping operation” wait until after the Winter Olympics. Or perhaps Beijing knew all along that the “peacekeeping mission” would be a full-scale invasion but miscalculated Russia’s military capabilities, as well as the strong global reaction to Russian aggression. In any case, the crude internal censorship of anti-war messages showed that there were uncomfortable truths in Ukraine which Beijing found it difficult to address publicly.

It is impossible to be certain about what exactly China did and did not know before Russia invaded. But it seems plausible that Beijing, like much of the world, never seriously entertained the prospect of a full-blown war in Ukraine and the international backlash that followed. Partly this may be explained by Russian secrecy, which seemingly kept even its own officials, spies and soldiers in the dark. But China was also blinkered by its own distrust of the US and entrenchment in its propaganda positions. Beijing’s narrative of Western decline and disunity convinced it that Russia’s “special military operation” would be quick and effective, just as its seizure of in Crimea had been in 2014.

Beijing’s costs and concerns in the conflict

Some analysts have suggested that China should be pleased to see the West drawn into a war with Russia, since it will destabilise Europe, push Moscow further into Beijing’s orbit, and may even set the scene for a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Another view holds that China is well-placed to broker peace in the conflict, and that this would increase its international standing. While there may some truth to each of those perspectives, I subject that Beijing has more reasons to be unhappy than happy with the present situation. This is a year of political transition for China, when Xi Jinping is expected to begin a third term as paramount leader.

To ensure a smooth extension to Xi’s time in power, a backdrop of stability is critical for the party-state apparatus. Crises – domestic or international – must be avoided and managed to the greatest extent possible. But China’s continued alignment with Russia threatens this objective. By not condemning Russia, Xi risks being seen as the enabler of its war crimes. And to make matters worse, China’s domestic economy is liable to feel the fallout from global sanctions on Russia, as well as disruption to global supply chains still recovering from the COVID-19 Pandemic.

While China is unlikely to incur any direct military cost in the Ukraine conflict, it may ultimately find itself in a weakened military position relative to the West. Russia’s invasion has made it probable that US-led military alliances are expanded in the medium to long term. Not just in Europe, but also in Asia. This, ironically, is precisely the outcome that Xi and Putin oppose. Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine also makes the threat of nuclear war slightly higher, yet mutually assured destruction is not something China wants. Put simply, its goals of achieving national greatness and building a “community of shared destiny” internationally will matter little if there is no world left.

The war in Ukraine betrays several other fundamental positions for China. Foremost are its long-term foreign policy principles of mutual non-interference and inviolable sovereignty for all states, large and small, which Russia has so clearly violated. But instead of call out these violations, Beijing is prioritising a narrative that trumps all other interests: opposition to US-led political hegemony and military blocs. It is this hostility to the US and NATO that has brought Russia and China close together, as analysts including Evan Fegenbaum have observed. And it is precisely this rhetorical position that has led China to promote Russian misinformation about “de-Nazification” and un-proven US-funded bioweapons programmes in Ukraine.

Linked through elite leaders and socialist legacies

Above all, the invasion of Ukraine has been awkward for China because of Xi’s personal association with the main instigator of the violence, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. In this crucial year for Xi, his relationship with the Russian leader creates heightened sensitivity to criticism of Putin and the war. By way of mitigation, Chinese state media has stepped up its promotions of Putin and defences of his actions.

Putin has long been a popular figure among the Chinese public, but to a large extent his popularity has been manufactured. As the leader of a large country with which China shares historical ties and a common geopolitical outlook, Putin was an obvious and uniquely important reference point for Xi’s public relations team. His strongman image has heavily drawn on the use of film and photography, including the famous topless horseback shot, and that ridiculously long table shot with Emmanuel Macron. Like Putin, Xi’s portrayal as a strongman leader has also strongly relied on visual images, in addition to  written propaganda, political theorising and purges.

Another way that both men have sought to enlarge their power is by extending their time in office through constitutional amendments. Xi took this step in 2017, and Putin in 2020, having previously extended the length of Russian presidential terms from four to six years. In removing term limits, both the Chinese and Russian systems seem to have forgotten the severe damage caused by the excessively long terms of Mao and Stalin. Putin’s paranoid persona and miscalculations over Ukraine are a reminder of why term limits are a good idea.

This return to practices associated with Mao and Stalin is not coincidental. Both Putin and Xi have sought to revive Communist-era slogans, anthems and other Leninist practices from their formative years. The dismantlement of the Soviet Union is said to have been traumatic for Putin, but is also an unresolved identity crisis for Xi’s China. The PRC was largely modelled on the USSR, and its collapse – just two years after the normalisation of Sino-Soviet relations and the Tiananmen Square democracy protests – left Communist China ideologically orphaned and fighting for its own existence.

Just as Putin’s pursuit of war in Ukraine may be seen as a legacy and identity building project, China’s alignment with Russia can also be rationalised as part of its own project to build an identity through “cultural confidence”. As the successor state to the USSR, the Russian Federation is the closest thing PRC has to an old comrade, and alignment with Moscow fosters nostalgia for the era of high socialism. Opposing Putin’s Russia, then, would only serve to make Xi’s China feel more isolated and undermine its own identity construction project.

Complex global ties call for strategic ambiguity

For all their common ground – from US and NATO opposition, to shared socialist legacies and modern-day authoritarian governance – the Chinese and Russian regimes are very different. Sino-Russian rapprochement is a relatively recent phenomenon in a long history characterised by diplomatic splits, border tensions and territorial disputes. While both countries argue against NATO expansion as a matter of principle, they are also opposed to military blocs because of their own inability to form such alliances. That Moscow and Beijing are not themselves willing to join in a military alliance speaks to a lingering lack of trust and willingness to defend one another. And that their partnership is formed not on shared values or trust, but shared opposition to a rival, should be seen as an inherent weakness.

Despite outwardly describing its relationship with Russia as “rock solid”, there have been subtle signals of China’s displeasure at its partner’s actions. China has not only praised the resistance of the Ukrainian people, but also pledged humanitarian support to Russia’s enemy. Interestingly, it was soon after that aid was announced by China, and shortly before a conversation between Xi and Joe Biden, that a Russian government plane bound for Beijing reportedly turned back to Moscow.

While tacitly okaying Moscow’s invasion, Beijing has allowed some room, albeit limited, for the exchange of different views on the war. And although the Chinese domestic media continues to lean in Russia’s direction, Beijing’s foreign-facing news outlets have very conspicuously tried to present a more balanced and critical view. Chinese business also appears somewhat divided, with surging Russian commodities trade on the one hand, but decoupling in areas exposed to US sanctions, such as aviation component sales, on the other.

In sending these mixed messages, China appears to have settled on a deliberate strategy of ambiguity as its most effective way to navigate the Ukraine crisis. This is a logical path for China to take on Ukraine, given its conflicted interests of long-term foreign policy principles, opposition to NATO and US hegemony, and continued outsized trade with the West. It shows that Beijing has by no means abandoned its core position of opposing perceived US expansionism, but is also increasingly aware of the international reputational costs of its association with Putin.

Adding further complexity are China’s large trade flows to the US and Europe, including with Ukraine and other Eurasian countries seen as important to Xi’s signature Belt and Road Initiative. China’s inability to reconcile these various positions makes it unable to state a clear position on the war that is unified between domestic and foreign audiences, making strategic ambiguity the only option. In pursuing an ambiguous approach, China will not get involved militarily in Ukraine or explicitly declare support for or approval of Russia’s invasion. At most, it may provide covert assistance to Russia, militarily or economically, but only where this can be achieved with a good degree of plausible deniability.

But Xi is also unlikely to completely disassociate from Putin, as long as he is undefeated militarily and politically. This is not only because Beijing sees little reward from doing so, but also because it fears significant long-term costs in its strategic competition with the US. Overtly opposing Russia would, in turn, raise serious questions about Xi’s strategic judgement. And in a year when Xi seeks an extension to his term in office, such questions are even more taboo than usual. It follows that China’s pursuit of strategic ambiguity on Ukraine will likely persist for the foreseeable future.

Photo credits: Reuters (thumbnail), AP (header)