In the last few days, Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has suddenly seemed to turn back the hands of the clock of history.  

As the Russian army continues to carry out devasting attacks on Ukraine, the return of power politics is materialising under our eyes with Putin willing to reshape the post-1991 geographical and political map of Europe.

All this has come with strong condemnation from around the world. Anti-war protests and demonstrations have broken out even across Russia amid a fierce Kremlin crackdown.

However, this is not the full story.  While many newspaper articles and policymakers have been quick to highlight Putin’s isolation, in other countries and regional areas out of the Western sphere, the reaction to Putin’s attacks has been far more mixed.

Despite the unprecedented international backlash, which is probably best exemplified by the United Nations General Assembly’s (UNGA) overwhelming vote (143 of the 193 members states) condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and demanding an immediate end to the invasion, countries, such as China and India have taken a different stance.

From the very start of the crisis, China’s position has been very hesitant and its statements rather ambiguous. China has backed Putin’s security concerns and his opposition to NATO expansion. While arguing for respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, China has refrained from calling Russia’s military action an invasion. It has abstained from the Security Council (SC) vote condemning the war, as well as from the UNGA resolution.

Zhang Jun, China’s envoy to the UN, said that the UNGA resolution does not “take full consideration of the history and complexity of the current crisis” and denounced a “Cold War mentality based on bloc confrontation”, calling for “properly addressing the legitimate security concerns of all parties”, including Russia. China has also opposed sanctions, which it has defined as unilateral and having no basis in international law.

Alongside China, India, which claims a historic friendship with Russia and, in addition, is the world’s second largest importer of Russian arms, has abstained from the UNGA resolution after having declined to vote on a similar resolution in the UNSC.

Other countries in the Asian region have taken a rather lukewarm position.

While Singapore, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan have joined in sanctions against Russia, a joint statement put out by the foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) made no mention of Russia’s invasion of a sovereign state. The ASEAN bloc said only that they were “deeply concerned,” but sidestepped any direct criticism of Russia.   

Remarkably, the New York Times has reported that Putin’s speech which essentially portrayed the conflict as one waged against the West, won loud cheers on Chinese social media. Other voices from the region have recalled the warnings of Georg Kennan, the famous architect of the doctrine of containment, that “expanding NATO would be the most fateful error of America policy in the entire post-Cold War era” which would inevitably trigger Russian paranoia.  

It would then be a mistake to take for granted Putin’s isolation. Above all, the war in Ukraine seems to have opened room to cement the relationship between Russia and China. In recent times, China and Russia have moved closer together both economically and strategically. In December, Russia supplied more oil to China than Saudi Arabia, while China is the first destination for Russian exports. China and Russia have forged new food agreements with China recently announcing its openness to importing Russian wheat.  Some analysts warn that Beijing’s leaders already envision a marriage of their vast industrial might with Russia’s formidable natural resources.  At the 2022 Winter Olympics, China and Russia’s declaration of a partnership with “no limits” suggests a desire by both parties to charter a long-term alignment.

There is a lot of speculation that Beijing will use the war in Ukraine as a test case for its next moves in Taiwan- Angela Pennisi di Floristella

Added to this, one has to bear in mind that despite the ups and downs, of Sino-Russian relations from World War II onwards, there are important commonalities between these two countries. Just as China wants to restore its “rightful place” on the world stage and realise its goal of “national rejuvenation” and definitely overcome the so-called century of humiliation, Putin also wants to restore the great power status of Russia. Just as China portrays itself as a victim of the West, the Russian narrative also emphasises Western political, ideological and military aggression. Both countries share a deep desire to challenge America’s global role.  Both claim principles of non-interference and condemn sanctions the West imposes on the grounds of autocratic rule and human rights violations. The recent blocking of independent news outlets and social media platforms by Russia is yet another indicator of China and Russia’s growing closeness.  

It sounds like a very strange coincidence that, last February 21 – just three days before the attack on Ukraine – marked the 50th anniversary of Nixon’s travels to China, which ended decades of US opposition to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) signalling the beginning of US-China rapprochement. Nixon’s trip accellerated international recognition of the PRC, opening the so-called phase of tripolarity, which for that US administration was intended to exploit the dynamics of the triangular relationship between China, the US and the USSR, with the ultimate goal of restraining Soviet behaviour. Historians of the Asia Pacific, such as Yahuda, regard this phase as one of the crucial steps towards the erosion of the Cold War era in the Asia Pacific region. Of no less importance, the tripolarity phase allowed for a new cooperative course of action between China and the West, which a few years later paved the way for China’s integration in the global economy.

In an opposite way, recent years have been marked by rising Sino-US and even Sino-EU competition. Xi’s more assertive foreign policy, the creation of new Chinese-led multilateral institutions, such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s ramping up of defence spending and territorial claims have resulted, among many other things, in trade and technological wars and maritime tensions over the South China Sea. In 2009, the Obama administration reacted to China’s ascendancy with a multidimensional rebalance to Asia, centred on military, economic and multilateral components. The Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy (FOIP) launched by Trump essentially built upon Obama’s policy in an effort to contain Beijing’s behaviour and defend the liberal order. Following this, alongside a number of Asian countries, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and ultimately the EU, have adopted their own strategies for the Indo-Pacific.

Clearly, the war in Ukraine will put these strategies to a severe test. On top of all this, how can the US, which is deemed to be the main security provider of both the Asian and European regions, reassure its NATO members against Russian ambitions in Europe and at the same time fulfil the promise of a FOIP?  In Asia, concerns are mounting that the crisis could, yet again, distract the US from the Indo-Pacific theatre. There are worries about Taiwan, which many see to have parallels with Ukraine. In this regard, there is a lot of speculation that Beijing will use the war in Ukraine as a test case for its next moves in Taiwan.

That is why the response to the war in Ukraine for the defence of its national sovereignty, independence and liberal principles is so important. The war has triggered unprecedented transatlantic unity and has also demonstrated that a strong European response is possible. China’s main news outlets have been reporting the major shift in Germany’s position on Ukraine, including its decision to increase defence spending and reverse previous limits to providing arms. China is watching closely how EU countries are working to reduce their high reliance on Russian energy, as well as the EU’s unity in the adoption of the largest ever package of sanctions, targeting Russia’s financial system, its high-tech industries and its elite. For China, the costs of supporting Russia may therefore be too high, especially in the long term, if the war keeps going on. For China, Ukraine is an important transit hub to the EU and a key partner in China’s BRI. And more importantly, China fears the repercussions of Western sanctions and being shut out of its largest markets: the EU and the US. It therefore comes as no surprise, that China is now willing to mediate the conflict and find quick ways to resolve the issue through negotiations. 

Yet, as declared by China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Beijing has “rock solid” relations with Moscow.

While strict economic sanctions might have a chance to help a short-term diplomatic solution to the conflict, they might not be enough in the longer term to curb the appetite of power-seeking countries, hostile to the Western-led liberal order as well as to avert their axis. This is something that we should keep in mind.

Angela Pennisi di Floristella, senior lecturer, Department of International Relations, Faculty of Arts

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