A specter is haunting the West—the specter of a China-Russia alliance, real or imagined. As the West is rushing lethal weapons to Ukraine, Washington unexpectedly confronts Beijing’s long-standing neutrality as a make-or-break issue. For China, however, its neutrality is crucial, not only for its own interest but also for world stability. The ongoing military conflict in Ukraine, for all its destruction and desolation, is likely to last long and even escalate. Welcome to the Kissingerian grave new world of WMD and AI, plus the United States’ “be-with-us-or-against-us” ultimatum 2.0.
Neutrality of Chinese Characteristics
China’s neutrality regarding the Ukraine issue—which is defined as “objective and impartial” by the Chinese Ambassador to Washington Qin Gang—is genuine for the basic fact of life that both Russia and Ukraine are China’s friends, or “strategic partners.” It is very difficult, if not impossible for China to take sides. Indeed, the ongoing war is seriously undermining China’s interests, including its extensive foreign investment program of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), for which Ukraine has been an important regional hub. In 2021, the Sino-Ukraine trade jumped by 35% to $19.3 billion over the previous year. Although this was much smaller than China’s trade with Russia ($147 billion), it has been more than doubled in the past five years.
Back in late 2013, when Ukraine was torn between Russia and the EU, China went as far as to offer Ukraine an $8 billion investment deal. Although this was smaller than Russia’s $15 billion aid package, it was larger than the EU’s €4.4 billion.
China’s neutrality regarding the Ukraine case is not purely commercial, it is driven by a mix of humanitarianism, pragmatism, and political realism. In his teleconference with the EU leaders (Charles Michel and Ursula von der Leyen) on April 1, President Xi Jinping urged all sides to work for a political settlement of the war in Ukraine while avoiding escalation and a bigger humanitarian disaster. In the longer run, Xi called for dialogue between the EU/U.S. and Russia for a “balanced, effective and sustainable security framework in Europe.”
For many in China, the war in Ukraine is destructive and heartbreaking. A recent study by Beijing’s Renmin University indicates that 30% of respondents support Russia’s “special military operations,” 20% side with Ukraine, and 40% remain neutral. Many are concerned about the current “you-go-low-and-I-go-lower” escalatory rhetoric and actions regarding the Ukraine conflict, leading to a much wider war. In the age of WMD, the end to the conflict will have to be found in the politico-diplomatic realm. There has been therefore broad support among the Chinese for the government’s call for restraints and negotiations by all parties to end the war at the earliest possible time. Three shipments of Chinese humanitarian assistance have been delivered to Ukraine and more will go.
China’s neutrality, therefore, is not just passive but principled for a balanced and lasting security of all parties. This is in sharp contrast to the United States’s not-so-splendid isolation in the fateful months between Operation Barbarossa (22 June 1941) and Pearl Harbor (7 December 1941), which was best captured by then Senator Harry Truman. Two days after the German invasion of the Soviet Union, the New York Times quoted the future U.S. president: “If we see that Germany is winning we should help Russia and if Russia is winning we ought to help Germany and that way let them kill as many as possible…” In less than six months, America was at war and the rest is history.
Fast forward to the 21st century, China’s steady rise has been accompanied by a return to its Confucian past for wisdom in a world of chaos. A key component of Confucianism is being moderate (中庸) or staying in the middle while avoiding extremes. After huge swings in its domestic and foreign policies in the 1950s-1970s, China has since 1982 pursued an independent foreign policy of non-alliance, or what Henry Kissinger depicts as impartiality and pragmatism, which is very similar to Ambassador Qin Gang’s stance. This applies to the current Ukraine war, the 2014 Ukraine-Crimea crisis, and the 2008 Georgia-Russia conflict, as well as the Korea issue since the 1980s as China has opposed any move to destabilize the peninsular.
Western Realists Misplaced?
Among the various competing views in China’s public space regarding the Ukraine issue are those by Western realists like George Kennan who warned 25 years ago that NATO eastward expansion constitutes “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold-War era.” In his 1997 testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jack Matlock (U.S. Ambassador to the USSR,1987-1991) echoed Kennan’s deep concerns that the “misguided” NATO expansion “may well go down in history as the most profound strategic blunder made since the end of the Cold War.” Shortly after the 2014 Ukraine-Crimea crisis, Henry Kissinger, too, warned that given its unique history as part of Russia for centuries, Ukraine’s survival and thriving must be based on its neutrality as a “bridge,” not a battlefield, between Russia and the West. These views of Western realists—once residing within the academic circles in China—are now ubiquitous in the public space.
For many in China, the absence of political realism in the Ukraine discourse in the West is strange. Had these sober, albeit “politically incorrect” views been heeded in their own land (the West), the current war in Ukraine could have been avoided. The Western claim of Russia’s “unprovoked invasion” of Ukraine, therefore, does not convince many in China. The country’s political system may not be as liberal as that of the U.S. The Chinese mind, however, is far more open than what Henry Kissinger depicts as solipsism in America—the inability to conceive even another way of looking at the world.
Russia-China Alignment: A League of Its Own
“Friendship between the two states has no limits” and “there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation,” declares the Russia-China joint statement signed by Xi and Putin on 4 February 2022 before the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics. This new wrinkle of the decades-long “strategic partnership,” nonetheless, is not a military alliance. It does not embed with it the typical interlocking mechanism, similar to that of NATO’s “sacred” Article 5, that would automatically commit one to the other in conflict situations. In reality, Moscow and Beijing have been either noncommittal or neutral regarding almost all of each other’s “core interests,” be they Crimea, Taiwan, South China Sea, Sino-Indian border disputes, etc.
One of the key drivers for this friendly and flexible framework of strategic partnership is the lessons of the past. Between 1950 and 1989, relations between the two communist giants underwent wide swings between alliance and adversary, with an enormous cost for both sides. Since then, the two have transformed that highly ideological and dangerously militarized relationship into one of pragmatic coexistence. A central element in this relationship is the absence of ideology, which used to exaggerate the friendship during their “honeymoon” (1949-59) and amplify disagreements during their 30-year “divorce” (1960-89). In a way, the current Russia-China “strategic partnership,” unlimited or not, is a normal relationship after the “best” and “worst” times.
Such a pragmatic relationship since 1989 is perhaps the most stable, most equal (in comprehensive terms), and least harmful for the two large powers since the 1689 Treaty of Nerchinsk. It happens that this is a time when both sides have undergone huge socio-economic-political transformations. China, perhaps more than any other nation in the world, understands the enormous risks, challenges and difficulties in Russia’s painful transformation in the post-Soviet decades. And, unlike some in the West, China has refrained from taking advantage of Russia’s weakness for any short-term gains. Russia’s pride is, and perhaps should be, taken more seriously particularly when Russia is in its historical decline.
The Sino-Russian strategic partnership is not problem-free. On the contrary, some of them were “controversial” and even “contentious,” remarked Putin in his October 2017 Valdai speech. But these problems were deliberated, “resolved with compromised solutions” without “driving the situation into an impasse,” added the Russian president. Both sides describe the current relationship as “mature,” which is in sharp contrast to the highly politicized experience of the 1950–the 1970s. And they have every reason to preserve such a relationship regardless of any external distractions.
Last if not least, China and Russia are large civilizational entities with both materialistic and ideational capabilities to pursue their respective independent foreign and strategic goals, regardless of their economic status. This propensity in their foreign policy has gone hand in hand with their return, to different degrees, to their cultural/religious heritages: Confucianism for China (CCP as the “Chinese Civilization Party,” according to Mahbubani) and “moderate conservatism” for Russia with a hefty dose of Eastern Orthodoxy.
The Need for Genuine Neutrality in the “Western Civil-war” 2.0
The stability and absence of ideological factors in their bilateral ties have huge implications for the rest of the world. It means a historical return of the two large powers to the Westphalianism of noninterference in each other’s domestic affairs, the foundation of the modern world system of sovereign states pioneered—and now largely discarded—by the West.
Alongside NATO’s constant eastward expansion, the West’s endless wars of democracy promotion and regime change in the post-Cold War have led to a “liberal international order” (LIO), which is neither liberal nor orderly according to Niall Ferguson. In that sense, those who are warning about the return of the Cold War seem to be historically blind. The Cold War, for all of its militarized and ideologized standoff between the world’s superpowers, happened to be a “long peace” between them with formal and informal rules of the game including various verifiable arms control mechanisms. Within this system of bipolarity, security was mutual with restraint by both sides, particularly after the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis when U.S. President J.F. Kennedy publicly called for “a genuine peace, the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living, the kind that enables men and nations to grow and to hope and to build a better life for their children—not merely peace for Americans but peace for all men and women—not merely peace in our time but peace for all time.”
The world has gone a long way from that idealistic and sober reckoning. With the end of the equilibrium between Western liberalism and its socialist counterpart (Soviet Union), the West has pursued unilateral and absolute security at the expense of the security of the rest of the world, including Russia. Ukraine, therefore, has become a blowback of the Kennanian “fateful error.”
In his highly provocative treatise on civilization clashes in 1993, Samuel Huntington confronted the liberalist historical “endism” (Fukuyama) with his own endism of the Cold War as the end of the “Western civil war” (from the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia to 1991). In retrospect, the Huntingtonian endism does not only underestimate the self-destructive power of the West, but also is an understatement at best for the non-West. The 20th-century “Western civil wars” were “total wars” engulfing much of the non-Western world. Casualties for Russia and China in World War II alone were 27 million and 35 million, respectively. Beyond that, one should not discount all the wars of conquests and colonization around the world prior to the 20th century. Maybe because of this, much of the non-West—including India, Brazil, South Africa, etc.—are staying away from sanctions against Russia but calling for restraint and negotiations.
Being moderate and impartial is far more challenging than taking sides, particularly when the world is undergoing the most dangerous conflict since the end of World War II. A Sino-Russian military alliance cannot be completely ruled out, at least hypothetically. Such an interlocking mechanism, however, would guarantee to repeat the fateful “Guns of August” of 1914 when the two rigid and binding alliances in Europe declared war on each other within a week largely because of their alliance commitment, argued Scott Sagan of Stanford University.
In this regard, Beijing’s current principled and impartial neutrality should be appreciated. In the age of the toxic mix of weapons of mass destruction and mass dissemination of fake news of various kinds, it is time to leave some room for dialogue, peace, and neutrality towards an inclusive, indivisible, and enduring security for all.