The phone call between Presidents Xi and Zelenskyy, the Chinese Ambassador to the EU’s statement that the friendship between China and Russia has limits, France’s aspiration to develop a plan for a negotiated peace together with China, and that Ukraine’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hopes that China can mediate between the warring factions have all boosted China’s role in the Russia-Ukraine war. But is this expectation realistic?
China has two fundamentally conflicting interests regarding Russia’s war against Ukraine, which China still calls crisis or conflict rather than war. The most important interest is that Putin does not lose this war and that his rule in Russia remains stable.
China and Russia – together against the USA
Not only does China know that it has a dependent ally at its side against the United States on this path, but this also prevents democratic conditions from suddenly prevailing, as was the case with the collapse of the Soviet Union – and the CPSU that ruled it. Because that is China’s prime interest: to consolidate the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, to continue to rule China, unlike the CPSU, and to prevent a successful democratic transformation in Russia, as an example of China’s path.
Therefore, the war must continue until Putin secures his internal rule for the future. Victory in the war would help, but that is now a long way off.
Beijing relies on prosperity from its own resources
At the same time, it is part of the informal Chinese social contract that the population accepts Xi’s rule, but in return, he guarantees increased prosperity. Prosperity without Western democracy is the promise of the CP, which recognizes a much more effective form of democracy in China (which, however, has nothing in common with democracy apart from the name).
In the last 25 years, however, the promise of prosperity could only be kept through integration into the international economic order guaranteed by the USA. China now wants to slowly free itself from this and create prosperity on its own – through its own production and its own market.
However, China still needs trading partners and there are only two that are really interesting: the USA and the EU. For this reason, China has an interest in the war ending and economic planning becoming more calculable again. Because the longer it lasts, the sharper the efforts in the USA and the EU will be to thin out trade with China in order to reduce dependencies.
China is trying to drive a wedge between the US and the EU
China is attempting to resolve these conflicting interests in a classic dialectical way of thinking by striving for the separation of the transatlantic alliance of the EU and the USA as a solution to the dilemma and using the war against Ukraine as a lever for this. Because the desire for an end to the war, even under bad conditions for Ukraine, is pronounced in some European societies.
The Hungarian and French governments would go in this direction for very different reasons. In other European countries, public opinion could possibly be turned. At the same time, China has it in its power to fuel the debate about Taiwan’s future and US protection by aggressive behavior towards Taiwan.
The more acute the danger for Taiwan appears, the sooner – so Beijing hopes – the USA will direct its attention even more towards the Pacific and thus away from Europe. From the Chinese point of view, a ceasefire or even peace in Ukraine is primarily a lever for dividing the US and the EU.
NATO united by Russia’s war
So far, China has not achieved all three goals. It is not certain that President Putin will remain in office and that his rule will remain stable whatever the outcome of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. The danger that American and EU companies will become less involved in China in the future – investing, producing and trading – has not been averted. The policy of risk reduction in trade with China is emerging as a consensus between the US and the EU.
In addition, threats of sanctions are hovering over trade with Russia. Transatlantic relations have been revitalized over the past year in ways that were previously hardly thought possible. NATO is emerging from last year stronger and the economic agreements are carrying it.
In this situation, China has no choice but to emphasize its goodwill as an incentive for European states to support Russia as far as possible and to count on the conditions changing in the future. Democratic states, in which elections can radically change the political orientation, grant the Chinese leadership options that it categorically excludes for its own country.
The longer the war lasts, the stronger Beijing’s position toward Moscow becomes
China was only able to achieve its goals with regard to Russia, even though it may not have been designed that way. Because it is plausible that China assumed rapid success for Russia in the war when it agreed on unlimited friendship. Why it disregarded US warnings of war, what information got to Moscow from here, and what Xi and Putin agreed on before the Olympic Games is an open question.
The fact is that as a result of the Russian actions, the question of who has the decisive influence in Sino-Russian relations has been clarified: China. In the future, the relationship will turn even further in favor of China. The longer the war lasts, the stronger. This is another reason why China can wait.