by A. Altieri D’Angelo
China has refused to condemn Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. It has been reported that they are considering sending aid to Russia. The U.S. has told China it would impose tough sanctions if it provided any support. China has refused to say what it will do. It is in a tough position; its international reputation is being ruined because it supports Putin.
The root cause of China’s troubles is that it formed an anti-U.S. alliance with Russia. Xi Jinping proclaimed a partnership with Putin at the Beijing Olympic Winter Games. Many people believe that Xi was well aware of Putin’s plans to invade Ukraine and asked him to delay the operation until after the Olympics ended. China certainly felt, as did Russia, that a Ukrainian war would be quick and lead to a strategic victory for Russia; and indirectly for China. China had expected a successful Ukrainian war to demonstrate that the democratic West (U.S. and E.U. in particular) were divided and in decline, and China, Russia, and other autocratic countries were ascendant. The plan failed miserably.
The world expects China to stop Putin. China’s lack of action conflicts with its publicly stated policy that all sovereign countries must be respected. Unfortunately, China has invested too much in Putin to abandon him. It faces a choice: criticize Putin (effectively deserting him) or become an international pariah like Russia. However, China could achieve a strategic win if it is intelligent and brave enough to seize an opportunity to be a hero.
China’s influence over Russia and Putin is the highest it has ever been. Russia is already overly reliant on China because of pre-2022 sanctions. The wave of new sanctions has opened the door to further Chinese investment and influence. Chinese companies buy Russian assets at bargain prices; they practically own Siberia. China is Russia’s lifeline. Putin has turned Russia into a quasi-vassal Chinese state.
Xi Jinping could help Putin win the war or stop it but must tread carefully in any event. He must not be perceived as actively assisting Russia. However, China cannot bow to U.S. demands; it would lose face. It will still need Russia as a counterforce against the U.S. and E.U. If China intervenes and forces a cessation of the fighting, it must achieve something for itself; something more tangible than just enhancing its international reputation.
A potential solution would be for China to persuade (force) Putin to agree to an immediate ceasefire and withdrawal of his troops from Ukraine in exchange for a declaration of Austrian/Swedish style neutrality. This proposal would allow Ukraine to join the E.U. but not NATO. It also would mean that no foreign forces would be stationed on any Ukrainian territory (including the Donbas region). Ukraine would have all the rights of a sovereign country; Russia could not control its foreign or domestic policy. China would insist on security guarantees to support Ukraine’s neutrality. Ukraine and Russia would need to agree to begin negotiations to establish limited autonomy for the Donbas region. But Donbas’s autonomy could not effectively veto Ukraine’s domestic or foreign policy. The parties involved in the conflict would also need to deal with the reconstruction of Ukraine and war reparations.
China receives its reward at this point, and Putin is rescued from a poorly planned war. China’s price for stopping the war would be to join with the U.S., U.K., and NATO in guaranteeing Ukraine’s security. It would also participate in the Minsk Agreement’s renegotiation, structuring Ukraine’s reconstruction program and sorting out war reparation payments.
By adopting this approach, China achieves several strategic goals. First, its international reputation will not only be restored but enhanced. As a guarantor and participant in negotiations, it will be directly involved in Ukrainian, Russian, and most importantly, European politics for the foreseeable future. It will have a seat at the table. It will help with the reconstruction of Ukraine, thereby enhancing its reputation in that region. China would be seen as a positive force in Europe and the world.
This solution is also a face-saving way out for Putin. He can claim that he achieved his strategic goals of preventing Ukraine from joining NATO and protecting the rights and culture of Donbas Russian-speaking people. He will also retain China’s full public support of China. (However, China will likely reassess the role Putin will play in the future.)
China would be the biggest winner. Russia will be more indebted to China diplomatically as well as economically. China would also achieve a significant diplomatic and public relations victory. It will reap huge strategic benefits by being a European power broker; U.S. influence could decline.
It remains to be seen if China is ambitious enough to take advantage of a bad situation.