This is a difficult one. Badly stung in the past, outwardly China prides itself on being a peaceful country. Apart from the odd isolated incident like Hong Kong and perpetually simmering tensions around Taiwan, it’s actions are more subversive than warlike. As a whole, the country is a pretty shrewd operator, having learned long ago that there is more than one way to skin a cat.
However, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put it China in a very precarious position indeed. While the rest of the world scrambled to vilify Russia and ostracize them in every way possible as punishment for what is almost universally regarded as an unprovoked and unjustifiable attack on their neighbours, Chinese leaders were conspicuous by their failure to do so. It solidified the fact that China and Russia have a deep relationship. Wng Yi, the Chinese foreign minister, recently lauded Russia as his country’s most important ‘strategic partner.’ It hasn’t always been easy between them (is it ever?) but there has been a general feeling for some time now that they are allies and share common agitators, if not outright enemies. A nation built on manufacturing, China is a major buyer of Russian oil and gas, and the only major government that has refrained from publicly criticising Putin’s attack. There have even been suggestions that Xi Jinping had prior warning of the invasion and persuaded Putin not to put his plan into action until after the Winter Olympics (held in Beijing) had finished so as not to detract from the event.
The reason the West is so horrified by Putin’s warmongering actions, apart from the injustice of it all, is that they pose a direct threat to us and our way of life. There is a fear that if his forces conquer Ukraine which, let’s face it, given the amount of resources at their disposal, will probably happen sooner rather than later, he will simply move on to the next in line. And then it gets messy. If Russia were to invade one of the Nato members like Poland, Lithuania, Latvia or Estonia, it would automatically put them at war with the US, UK and all 30 Nato members. In other words, it would spark World War Three. I think it’s safe to say nobody wants that.
But Putin has made no secret of the fact that his ultimate aim is not world domination (yet) but reunification of the former Soviet states. This includes Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia who joined Nato in 2004 and makes them prime targets. Belarus, yet another former Soviet state, has already bonded with Russia who have also controlled the Crimean Peninsular since 2014. Finland, another likely target, isn’t a former Soviet state. And neither is it a member of Nato, though that might change very soon. Any way you slice it, things have the potential to turn very bad very quickly.
So, back to China. Russia’s determination to win back land they see as historically belonging to them is eerily reminiscent of China’s attitude toward Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Tibet, and various other outlying territories mostly in the South China Sea. There is still a feeling that they might try to capitalize on the unrest, follow Russia’s lead, and attempt to take one or more of these territories (probably Taiwan) by force in the near future. Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, recently described both Russia and China as authoritarian powers seeking to expand and called the spirited defence of Ukraine an ‘inspiration.’ His Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, aside from reinforcing his country’s support for Russia, condemned the West for what they perceive as ‘naked double standards’ around the Taiwan issue and reiterated their stance that that while is recognized Russia and Ukraine as separate countries, Taiwan is ‘an inalienable part of China.’ Of course, the vast majority of Taiwan people disagree with that assertion.
More than likely, China is waiting to see how it all pans out in Ukraine before considering making any significant powerplays of their own. In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion, I got the impression that while China may not have been cheering from the sidelines, it was playing out very much like your friend getting into a fight in school. This friend of yours is big and powerful. He can take care of himself, and can easily beat any one kid in that playground into submission. But if 30 of those kids grouped together and ganged up on your friend, there’s no possible way he can win. Not on his own. You would have a moral obligation to step in and help. That war would then become China and Russia, and possibly Belarus, versus The Rest. If they can get North Korea onside and make it a battle between dictatorships and the Free World, they might even get the upper hand. The West is at it’s lowest ebb in centuries, which is precisely why Putin has decided to strike now. Let’s not forget, though, that it is the Free World that made these countries rich by buying natural resources from Russia and cheap goods from China, putting them in a position to attack us.
This, of course, is pure conjecture. China might instead choose to stand back, watch every other country in the world tear each other apart, and then rise up to pick up the pieces. That would almost certainly make them the dominant force in the world in just about every sense, which is what Xi JinPing wants.
What we do know is that China is no longer sitting on the fence, having made their position crystal clear through Guo Shuqing, the chairman of the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission, who said at a news conference on March 2nd 2022, “We will not join such sanctions [placed on Russia], and we will keep normal economic, trade and financial exchanges with all the relevant parties. We disapprove of the financial sanctions, particularly those launched unilaterally, because they don’t have much legal basis and will not have good effects.” (1)
You could say that China is trying to be a peacekeeper, in a way. Another conclusion to draw could be that China simply wants to do the right thing for its own citizens and secure sufficient fuel supplies (probably at a lower price than before, now that nobody else is buying it). Or you could say that last bit comes across as a warning, or even a veiled, indirect threat. China is rarely outwardly hostile. It is too worried about public image and being seen in a bad light for that (though it didn’t stop them introducing the National Security Law). Instead, it will make statements like the above and expect you to read between the lines to find the true meaning.
I just hope my vision is blurred.