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Ukraine: The Price of China’s Neutrality

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The whole world closely followed the diplomatic show of Xi Jinping’s visit to Vladimir Putin on 20-22 March 2023. Much more than a good show Putin did not get out of it.


Ukraine: The Price of China’s Neutrality!

The whole world closely followed the diplomatic show of Xi Jinping’s visit to Vladimir Putin on 20-22 March 2023. Much more than a good show Putin did not get out of it. Yes, he showed the world that he is not isolated and that Xi is willing to come to Moscow even in the midst of the war against Ukraine. But he did not obtain any concrete support for the war. In spite of all the rhetoric about “unlimited partnership”, in practice China’s policy remains: non-intervention. China will certainly not drop Russia, but it does not lend military support either. Of course, by not applying sanctions, China does support Russia indirectly. But in that it is not alone: only the EU and NATO countries and their closest partners, such as Australia and Japan, have sanctions against Russia. The rest of the world has not followed suit.

Who Pays the Price?

Russia pays a price for that benign neutrality. Russian energy exports to China have sharply increased, but at a price far below what it could charge to Europe before the invasion of Ukraine. China has committed to invest in Siberia and in the northern sea route. But in a way that demonstrates Russia’s weakness: it is not able to fully exploit its natural resources and geographic position on its own.

China pays a price too: its refusal to condemn the invasion has cost it a lot of diplomatic credit in the West. How dare Xi visit Putin just days after the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague charged him? But the visit had of course been planned before (and the question remains whether it is smart to indict a president with whom the West might in the end have to sit at the table again if a diplomatic solution yet appeared possible).

The so-called peace plan that China revealed on 24 February 2023, one year after the start of the war, has not changed the West’s assessment. The 12-point “plan” is too vague, and does not offer any concrete handle to Ukraine, although Kyiv remains very nuanced about it – clearly, Volodymyr Zelensky wants to avoid antagonising Xi. But neither does the “plan” contain much for Russia. Instead, two of the twelve points explicitly condemn attacks on nuclear power plants and the use of nuclear threats: a clear message to Moscow. (In that sense, Putin’s announcement of the deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to Belarus just two days after Xi visit can be seen as an assertion of Russian independence).

China’s Interests

Seen through the lens of China’s interests, the middle position that Xi assumes makes absolute sense. China sees Russia as its main partner against Western, and particularly American, dominance. Therefore, it cannot end up too weak. The greater the imbalance of power between China and Russia moreover, the more friction in their bilateral relationship. For the reality is that Russia is far from pleased with its increased dependence on China, while China takes very good care not to become too exclusively dependent on Russia. That surely is one of the motivations for the unexpected and successful mediation of an agreement between arch enemies Saudi Arabia and Iran earlier this month. Stability in the Gulf allows China to build closer relations with all parties and to secure its energy imports from the region.

At the same time, it probably to some extent suits China that Russian aggressiveness is reaching its limits. For a start, China was likely not amused at all by the large-scale war. After the 24 February invasion, the Putin-Xi statement of “unlimited partnership” of 4 February 2022 in Beijing was seen by many as proof of Chinese assent. In reality, the last thing on Putin’s mind is to ask Xi for permission for his moves. There are indications that he did announce a “special military operation”. Had Russia indeed undertaken a short and successful action in the east of Ukraine, then China would likely have accepted the results. The February 4 statement actually condemns military interventionism, however (be it with an eye to Western interventions, of course). The large-scale invasion of the whole country, without prior warning, can therefore also be seen as a loss of face for Xi.

In the end, China requires stability to implement its geoeconomic strategy, epitomised by the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Beijing welcomes Russian interventions such as the deployment of 3000 troops to Kazakhstan in January 2022, at the request of its president, who thus remained firmly in the saddle. China doesn’t have to get its own hands dirty, and can continue to roll out the BRI. But a war that causes worldwide economic instability and a risk of escalation into a great power war between Russia and the NATO Allies: that is not in China’s interest.

Finally, China will never let Russian policies determine its relations with the EU and the US: those are far too important. Some in Russia dream of a Eurasian bloc against the West, but Russia simply doesn’t have the means of launching such a project, which nobody in Asia is waiting for anyhow. China therefore will continue to do just enough to ensure that Russia does not lose too heavily, but for China that doesn’t have to come at the expense of its relations with the West. With that middle position, China gains credit in many other countries that prefer to stay neutral in this war.

Conclusion: Nuance and Diplomacy

Imagine that China had opted to support Russia to the same extent that the EU and the US support Ukraine. Then we would now be in a new cold war: Americans and Europeans against Russians and Chinese. Recurrent warnings by the US, echoed by the EU, that Chinese weapons for Russia would be a game-changer are a justified message of deterrence. Fortunately, for now China maintains its midway position. Let us not push China into Russia’s arms, therefore, by preventively closing doors, as long as China stays in that position. Good diplomacy means: keeping doors open.

China will not solve the war against Ukraine. But the West hopefully can count on China to dissuade Russia from considering all too radical options. If a window of opportunity might arise for sincere negotiations between Ukraine and Russia, then China might help to establish a compromise that is acceptable to all, together with the EU and the US.

Whether the tensions between the great powers, which there always will be, will remain manageable or become ever more confrontational, depends in large measure on how China’s strategy will evolve. China is inscrutable and vigilance is required – but not paranoia.

Many attached an ominous meaning to Xi’s parting words to Putin: “We are encountering change unseen in a hundred years. Let us cooperate to drive it”. That first sentence, Xi has been using in his domestic speeches since 2017, to point to the great internal challenges that China is facing. It actually is a quote from Chinese diplomat Li Hongzhang, who in 1872 warned the emperor that China had to reform to survive in the new world. But in 1911, revolution brought down the empire. An encouragement for Putin, or a warning? China remains difficult to read.


Sven Biscop married for love, not to have a research assistant, but he does warmly thank his Taiwanese-Belgian husband Aberu who immediately spotted the reference to Li Hongzhang.


First published in Dutch in the magazine Knack.


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