Russia started its invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. The horrible situation in Ukraine seen from the steady flow of media reports is indeed heartrending. With Russia’s use of biological and chemical weapons, and even tactical nuclear weapons, being mentioned as a possibility, certain members of the international community have voiced their hopes for China, Russia’s best friend, to act as mediator between Russia and Ukraine. Yet China has shown no sign of taking any action.
1. Beijing’ Ideal and Reality
The motto “Together for a Shared Future” and the vision “Joyful Rendezvous upon Pure Ice and Snow” of the 2022 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, together with the grand spectacle directed by Zhang Yimou and the remarkable showing of the Chinese athletes. There is a sense that all these have already been forgotten, and the main and only reason is that China is supporting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
China made a mistake in its response to Russia’s outrageous behavior.
This started with the China-Russia summit held on the day of the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics on Feb. 4 and the joint statement issued after this meeting. For sure, President Xi Jinping had wanted to advertise his honeymoon with President Putin to dispel the dark shadow cast by the “diplomatic boycott” initiated by the U.S. and other countries on account of China’s violation of human rights in Xinjiang and other issues and thus, enhance his own personal authority. The joint statement declared that “the two sides oppose further (eastern) enlargement of NATO” and that “friendship between the two states has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.” China took an unmistakable position on the Russian side in the faceoff between the U.S.-led NATO and Russia.
However, this policy judgment later came to limit China’s options. With the subsequent invasion of Ukraine, China was not only completely unable to play its role as a self-proclaimed “responsible nation,” but also inadvertently exposed the fact that its claim to be such a country is nothing but empty rhetoric. Xi Jinping was the very person who signed a joint communique with Ukraine in December 2013 saying: “China pledges to provide Ukraine nuclear security guarantee when Ukraine encounters an invasion involving nuclear weapons or Ukraine is under threat of a nuclear invasion.” In reality, China is abandoning Ukraine, which is supposed to be its friend.
The image of Putin watching the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in the audience appeared to be somewhat odd to this author. He was sitting all alone in the section allotted to the Russian delegation (Russian Olympic Committee), whose official participation as a country (Russian Federation) was not allowed in light of organized doping perpetuated in that country. This must have been humiliating for him. Looking back, Putin’s accepting such an arrangement might have been his concession in exchange for China’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
2. China’s True Intent Revealed
Behind what this author deems to be a miscalculation in China’s diplomacy on this issue is that in its eagerness to strengthen its position in its rivalry with the U.S., which has been aggravating since 2018, China has attached excessive importance to its united front with Russia. When Donald Trump – a champion of “America first” -- was president, while there were instances where China was able to make gains thanks to Trump’s own goals, it had become exhausted from dealing with his unpredictability. On top of this, the subsequent Biden administration has been advocating a fight against tyranny and strengthening relations with U.S. allies and partners, shifting the focus of its foreign policy and economic security to the Indo-Pacific. As a result, China has been forced into a head-on confrontation. With the national congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) looming in the second half of this year, Xi Jinping cannot afford to be seen as weak-kneed, so he may have had no choice but to show a tough stance toward the U.S.
It has become clear that under a desperate situation in which the existing international order is crumbling, there are two non-negotiable bottom lines, or so-called core interests, in China’s diplomacy.
First, China embraces a “China first” policy rivaling Trump’s diplomacy. This is evidenced by Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s remarks on two occasions. In his phone conversation with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba on March 1, Wang “stated China's position with a focus on ensuring the safety of Chinese citizens in Ukraine and strongly urged Ukraine to assume its due international responsibilities.” It has been noted that this was because China needed to appease the resentment of Chinese citizens in Ukraine toward the Chinese government for its embassy’s failure to evacuate them promptly. Even if that was the case, the above was no doubt an insensitive statement to make to a country suffering from Russia’s unprovoked invasion. It has to be said that something is also very wrong with China’s media policy of publicizing these remarks. In another phone call with Spanish Foreign Minister Jose Manuel Albares on March 14, Wang stated bluntly: “China is not a party directly involved in the crisis, and it doesn't want to be affected by sanctions even more. China has the right to safeguard its legitimate and lawful rights and interests.”
Second, China will resolutely resist any third party’s interference in the Taiwan issue. The Biden administration’s dispatch of a bipartisan delegation to Taiwan on March 1 led by a top military officer, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, must have seriously irked China. So it was unfortunate that the focus of China’s greatest concern in all its three high-level meetings with the U.S. (the phone call between foreign ministers on March 5, the meeting of senior officials on March 14, and the videoconference between the two leaders on March 18) -- held amid keen interest in the international community in whether any clue to ending Russia’s aggression in Ukraine would come out -- was to warn the U.S. on recent developments in U.S.-Taiwan relations. According to Xi Jinping, “The China-U.S. relationship, instead of getting out of the predicament created by the previous U.S. administration, has encountered a growing number of challenges. What’s worth noting in particular is that some people in the U.S. have sent a wrong signal to ‘Taiwan independence’ forces. This is very dangerous. Mishandling of the Taiwan question will have a disruptive impact on the bilateral ties… The U.S. must not miscalculate China’s strategic intention.”
3. Inward-Looking Mentality and Unification of Taiwan
The two bottom lines cited above clearly illustrate the evident “inward-looking” mentality in China’s foreign policy in recent years. In CPC jargon, this inward-looking mentality is “serving the people,” and this is not only limited to foreign affairs. For example, in terms of the mass media, as far as this author knows, international news has never been reported as the top story in the “General News” of the CCTV directly controlled by the Chinese government (State Council) or Renmin Ribao, the official organ of the CPC Central Committee.
This author is gravely concerned about China’s Taiwan policy in this context. While a pervasive realism underlies China’s foreign policy, it has a strong tendency to be swayed by emotionally-charged views or dogma when it comes to issues relating to Taiwan. “Taiwan must be reunified with the mainland no matter how difficult the situation is.”
China’s confidence in the “superiority of the political system” of one-party rule by the CPC, which has achieved the prosperity of the vast majority of the people and maintained internal “stability,” is taking root in this political environment. Furthermore, a form of self-reliant development strategy emphasizing the “great domestic circulation” has been adopted in light of the decoupling drive stemming from the U.S.-China confrontation and the COVID-19 pandemic. China says that through the promotion of information technology and AI, it will “ensure the achievement of the centennial goals of military development by 2027, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army.” While what is meant by the “centennial goal of military development” is unclear, this probably refers to achieving the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” with the unification of Taiwan. Xi is most likely to be elected for his third term as general secretary of the CPC this fall. This author fears that Xi might think that Taiwan unification or laying the groundwork for reunification, in spite of all rational considerations, by the end of his third term which coincides with the 100th anniversary of PLA, is his raison d'etre. If that is the case, he must be closely watching Ukraine’s fate and the Western nations’ response to Russia’s invasion and how effective this is through the prism of Taiwan reunification.
The result of the vote at the UN General Assembly Emergency Special Session on the resolution demanding that Russia “withdraw its military forces immediately and unconditionally” (on March 2) was 141 in favor, 5 against, and 35 abstained. China was among the abstentions. These numbers demonstrate that it is these rational nations that constitute the “mainstream of history,” a concept favored by China in its foreign policy, and that the reality is that these nations, regardless of their size or political system, have unanimously said “no” to Vladimir Putin.
One aspect of the holding of this UNGA Emergency Special Session was symbolic in relation to Taiwan. The resolution on Ukraine was jointly sponsored by the U.S. and Albania. It is a well-known fact that Albania submitted the UNGA resolution in 1971 for the membership of China (People’s Republic of China) and the expulsion of Taiwan (Republic of China) from the United Nations, and this was resisted by the U.S. at that time. Half a century later, these two former adversary nations have joined hands to raise their voice of protest against Russia, which China virtually supports. What does China think of the irony of this reality?
4. China’s Predicament and Japan’s Role
China’s support of Russia has remained unchanged even after the U.S.-China summit via video call. When a vote was taken at the UN Security Council on March 23 on the resolution submitted by Russia on the humanitarian situation in Ukraine, China was the only country that voted with Russia. If China persists in taking such a position, it will probably also face criticism eventually. If it thinks that by maintaining its policy of basically supporting Russia, it might be able to fish in troubled waters with the decline in the Western countries’ influence in the post-Ukraine crisis world, it is making a big mistake. This is because even though Putin’s Russia, which has no qualms about perpetuating indiscriminate massacre, might be able to win victory in the short-term, it is deemed to be destined for downfall in the long-term – albeit at the inevitable cost of tragic loss of more Ukrainian citizens’ lives during this process. China must not misread the momentous trend of history.
On the other hand, China is not necessarily giving Russia its unqualified support. While it criticizes the Western countries, it avoids criticizing Ukraine. It calls on “all concerned countries,” including Russia, to exercise restraint. It is also providing emergency humanitarian aid because “the present situation is something China does not want to see.”
China is also known for deep-rooted flexibility and responsiveness in its foreign policy. Japan must not limit itself to criticizing China or expressing concern; it should make persistent efforts to draw China into the mainstream of the international community. It is necessary to set the stage for China to give full play to its flexibility. Xi Jinping advocates the building of “a new form of international relations featuring mutual respect, fairness, justice, and win-win cooperation.” However, this author does not believe that it is possible at all to realize this through cooperation with Putin’s Russia. It is strongly hoped that the responsible leaders of China will approach this problem presented to them with an open mind.
In addition, the presence of rational-minded Chinese intellectuals capable of independent thinking is heartening.
Nanjing University professor Sun Jiang and five other Chinese historians recently issued a statement entitled, “Our Attitude Toward Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine.” Prof. Sun and his colleagues argued: “Despite all the reasons and excuses cited by Russia, using military force to invade a sovereign state tramples on the principles of international relations based on the UN Charter and destroys the existing international security system,” asserting that Russia started an “unjust war.” They also declared “unwavering support for the Ukrainian people’s actions to defend their country” and made a strong appeal to the Russian government and President Putin to “stop the war and work for the resolution of conflict through discussions.”
Prof. Hu Wei, vice-chairman of the Public Policy Research Center of the Counselor’s Office of the State Council, also published an article entitled “Possible Outcomes of the Russo-Ukrainian War and China’s Choice.” Hu asserted that since “this military action constitutes an irreversible mistake,” “China will become more isolated if it adheres to the established framework.” “Cutting off from Putin and giving up neutrality will help build a good image of China in the international community, and it will be possible to ease relations with the U.S. and the West through various efforts.”
Both documents were deleted from the SNS in China shortly after they came out. Building strong ties with these intellectuals and expanding this network of contacts will be a difficult long-term endeavor under the current Chinese political system. However, this will prove to be an invaluable asset for both Japan and China.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and China. The two countries have strived to strengthen bilateral ties despite various challenges. After the COVID-19 pandemic started, China has asked Japan to “take concrete action to return to the course of normal relations.” In that case, perhaps now is precisely the time for Japan to take action, if only in the sense that it can actually exploit this demand to its own advantage. Japan must bring China around by explaining that, “The international community is opposing Putin and not Russia. You must persevere in persuading Russia to make certain compromises. And let us join hands in building the new just international order that you are also aspiring for.” I believe it is really necessary for Japan to adopt such a mindset and course of action. For this reason, we ask the Japanese government to hold a Japan-China foreign ministerial meeting at an early date.