As Russia shells residential neighborhoods in Kyiv, the quest for a ceasefire in Ukraine is ever more urgent. But western hopes that China may be able to use its influence as Russia’s “strategic partner” remain so far unfulfilled. A seven-hour meeting late on Monday between Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat, and Jake Sullivan, the US national security adviser, ended without word of an agreement to work together towards a cessation of violence.
In fact, a write-up of the meeting in China’s official Xinhua news agency mentioned Ukraine only in passing as one of a number of “international and regional issues”. It said that discussions had focused on how US-China relations could return to the “correct track” and reported that Yang criticized Washington for not adhering to the “one China principle”, which Beijing says recognizes its sovereignty over Taiwan. A senior US official said the meeting included an extensive conversation about Russia and Ukraine.
China and Russia have developed a similar world view, chafing at US dominance and efforts to spread liberal democracy. Both have been wrongfooted by the strength and unity of the western response to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of his neighbor. Beijing’s ties to Moscow mean its reputation with the wider world is on the line. Not since China’s 1989 massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators has it risked so severely sullying its global standing. Yet if Beijing can prevail upon Moscow to join ceasefire negotiations in good faith, it may be seen internationally as something of a savior.
There are costs to China’s no-limits friendship with Russia. Its refusal to call Russia’s aggression an “invasion”, or to criticize Moscow at all, are combining to paint China in the west as an accomplice to slaughter. Russia’s civilian bombing in Ukraine is provoking accusations of war crimes.
The risks for China could rise if it helps Russia to dodge western sanctions. Sullivan said this week that the US was “communicating directly, privately to Beijing that there will absolutely be consequences for large-scale sanctions evasion efforts or support to Russia to backfill them”.
There are also other dangers for Beijing. US officials have told the Financial Times that Moscow has asked Beijing for military equipment to support its invasion of Ukraine. China has denied such claims as “malicious disinformation”. Whatever the truth, the potential for an escalation in acrimony between Washington and Beijing is clear.
China is not nearly self-sufficient in energy or food. It is only too well aware of the vulnerabilities inherent in its supply routes through Asian seas dominated by the US navy. The possibility of naval blockades, however remote, is matched by US capacity to freeze a large portion of China’s foreign reserves held in US Treasury bonds.
It may well be that – for all Russia’s professed friendship with Beijing – Putin can not be deflected from his purpose to subjugate Ukraine under the boot of his authoritarian regime. Even if this is the case, Beijing’s refusal so far to put clear daylight between Russia’s invasion and its own position is inviting western governments to associate it with Putin’s war.
Beijing’s best interest lies in exerting pressure on Putin and redoubling its efforts to bring about a ceasefire. China may share the Russian regime’s perception of the western world. But it would not want to be on to the “wrong side of history”. In a concrete sense, as Hu Wei, a prominent Chinese academic argued in an extraordinary article this week, Beijing’s main aim should be to avoid Russia from dragging it into the war, and to act to prevent escalation.