Why the U.S. and its allies may see China as complicit
Both Beijing and Taipei have said Taiwan is in a fundamentally different position than Ukraine. But China’s takeaways from the Ukraine crisis are “not as positive as people originally expected,” Sun said. Rather than the swift victory Russia had assumed, it has faced staunch resistance both within Ukraine and internationally. If a military invasion of Taiwan were to unfold along the same lines, Sun said, “China will be in very big trouble.”
Washington’s support for Taiwan was underlined this month by visits from former government officials, including a delegation sent to Taiwan by the Biden administration.
China also has major economic considerations in its relations with Russia and Ukraine, both of which are important trade partners. They are also both part of China’s Belt and Road program for global infrastructure investments, and Beijing sees them as gateways to business across Europe.
At the same time, China is increasingly reliant on Russia for imports of energy and food. It recently agreed to lift all restrictions on imports of Russian wheat, drawing criticism that it is giving Moscow an economic lifeline as other countries impose sanctions.
The White House has warned that China will face “significant consequences” if it provides Russia with assistance that violates sanctions or supports the war effort. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said Wednesday that Beijing would strongly counter any U.S. effort to “damage China’s legitimate rights and interests,” criticizing the U.S. government remarks as “naked bullying and coercion.”
While China has expressed opposition to sanctions, analysts say it does not appear eager to help Russia evade them.
Bloomberg News has reported that two of China’s biggest state-owned banks are restricting financing for purchases of Russian commodities. On March 3, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a development bank based in Beijing whose members include Russia, said all activities relating to Russia and its ally Belarus were on hold. China is also refusing to provide Russia with aircraft parts after Boeing and Airbus cut off supplies, Reuters reported, citing Russian news agencies.
Image: United Nations Security Council meeting, in New York City
The Chinese ambassador to the United Nations, Zhang Jun, addresses the Security Council in New York on Monday. Andrew Kelly / Reuters
Experts said it was also notable that China had abstained on United Nations resolutions criticizing the Russian invasion rather than voting against them.
“I think this is a very subtle and diplomatic way to say no,” said Jon Yuan Jiang, an expert on Chinese-Russian relations at the Queensland University of Technology in Australia.
Jiang pointed out that China is mainly focused on domestic concerns, including the pandemic, the economy and its two biggest annual political meetings, which ended Friday. For Xi, stability is paramount as he prepares to seek an unprecedented third term in office at a Communist Party congress later this year.
“China does not want to see this kind of war continue,” Jiang said.
Beijing has made comments suggesting it could play a mediating role, at least in negotiating a cease-fire ahead of broader talks. But if the U.S. and its allies see China as complicit in facilitating Russia’s invasion, they are unlikely to consider it an honest broker, Nagy said.
Wang Huiyao, a Chinese government adviser, said China is ideally placed to play a diplomatic role precisely because it is trying to balance its interests with both Russia and the West.
“China also wants to maintain good relations with the U.S.,” he told NBC News.
Though the Ukraine crisis has created a dilemma for China, experts say, it could still have upsides. For example, China could leverage a weaker Russia to negotiate lower energy prices, Nagy said.
Beijing also stands to benefit if the Ukraine crisis once again diverts the U.S. from its efforts to focus on the Asia-Pacific region, which have already been delayed for years by wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East.
“China has been agonizing over the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy above anything else,” Sun said.
“If the U.S. is distracted and Russia becomes more dependent on China as a result of this war, it might come out as a winner.”