A series of recent Ukrainian counteroffensive successes – the Kerch Strait Bridge blast being the latest, have inflicted significant losses on the Russian forces, yet Ukraine wants an early end to the ongoing war. Staring into economic recession, Europe does not want to enter the winter heating season while the war is on. The US indeed is happy to see the war procrastinate until Russia is totally “bled out.” On the other hand, Putin for the time being is clueless as to what is the “right” strategy to win the war. Interestingly, China does not want the war to end quickly. For, Beijing is eying huge strategic gains if Russia is weakened but fights on.
In spite of claiming itself as a third party in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict in Europe, China has been severely criticized by the West, the US in particular, for its “awkward stance of condemning the war but not the aggressor.” As the 7-month-long war lingers on, notwithstanding Chinese claims to declare itself a “third party” or “neutral” or “responsible power,” the world has been fervently debating Beijing’s evidently pro-Russia stance in the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
At the same time, it is also evidently clear the relentless US pressure on China to not “ally” with the Kremlin has succeeded in restraining President Xi Jinping to draw limits to his “no limit” commitment toward “old friend” President Putin. Additionally, early on in the conflict, with China placing its bet on aggressor Putin, most international analysts had counted China among the war’s biggest losers.
Contrary to what the dominant sections of the world press would have us believe, i.e. in Beijing’s calculations the Russian war in Ukraine would see a quick and early end, a larger section among China’s strategic thinkers has been hoping for a decisive yet delayed win for Russia. It is pertinent to point out that leading think tanks and media outlets in the West/US have been arguing that China’s stance on the Russia-Ukraine war was determined centered on Beijing’s “core” geostrategic and geopolitical interests.
The Washington-based prestigious Wilson Centre published a commentary by Iliya Kusa, a Ukrainian international affairs analyst, who observed: “China, like Europe, wants the war in Ukraine to end as soon as possible. China is not interested in a long-term, high-intensity conflict because of the political, reputational, and economic risks such a war would bring.”
A similar view was advocated in the columns of the influential Foreign Affairs – the century-old, leading US journal of global affairs. Reviewing the flip-flops in the Chinese strategy over a period of six months since the Russian invasion, an article in the US foreign policy journal said: “In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion, Beijing was on the back foot. [However], after almost six months after the war’s outbreak and with no end in sight, the war has changed Beijing’s strategy.”
Furthermore, citing a Chinese embassy official in the US following the Xi-Biden online meeting in mid-March, the newsmagazine Newsweek said Beijing’s ideal outcome for ending the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war must be “to solve the crisis now.”
On the other hand, it is not at all surprising that the unfolding discourse and evolving debates in China on the causes of the ongoing crisis in Ukraine are fundamentally different from, or even opposed to, prevailing perceptions and viewpoints in the West. An obvious reason is that the world appears contrastingly different from Beijing. But what is even more palpable is, according to a recent Harvard Business Review analysis, that the West is mostly wrong about China.
Interestingly, such analyses are not at all few and far between but are also reflected in the mainstream Western media. Influential media outlets in the West such as The Economist and others even offer an explanation for the world’s “catastrophic” misunderstanding of communist China – “the liberal myth.”
Moreover, far from what is generally described as the monolithic nature of the IR narrative in China, three broad trends can be easily identified in the media commentaries on the Russia-Ukraine war, written mostly by strategic affairs analysts, scholars, and international politics observers. The three trends can be further defined as representing views of those belonging to pro-establishment, leftist and Maoist, and pro-West or liberal schools of thought respectively.
Typically, pro-establishment scholars have been advocating the view that is in line with the official Chinese stance. From President Xi to Premier Li Keqiang to defense minister Wei Fenghe, all have been repeatedly emphasizing that China respects Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity; that China hopes that the US and NATO will hold talks with Russia to create conditions for an early cease-fire; that Beijing wants the war in Ukraine to end, etc.
A well-known pro-establishment strategic affairs commentator, Professor Zhang Weiwei of Shanghai’s prestigious Fudan University, also an influential voice in China’s foreign policy circles, recently said: “Russia-Ukraine conflict has transformed the world order and will continue to have a profound impact. The Russian military action is controversial, but its ultimate goal is to overthrow the US-led unipolar hegemonic international order.”
Likewise, just short of admitting that China is fully backing Russia and Putin’s military invasion of Ukraine, the president of the CPC-run China Institute of International Studies, Xu Bu, who is also the party secretary of the Institute, commented on the successful visit of Xi on the eve of the upcoming crucial 20th Party Congress to Central Asia where the Chinese President held a one-to-one meeting with Russian President Putin, saying “the comprehensive relationship between China and Russia is as stable as a mountain, and both China and Russia are willing to support each other on issues concerning their core interests.”
Representing an almost contrarian view to the above, widely respected scholars both within China and internationally, such as Beijing’s Tsinghua University IR Studies Institute don Professor Yan Xuetong – who has been accused by the leftist intelligentsia as a “pro-liberal, pro-US” or qinmei in Mandarin– thinks there is no gain for China in the Ukraine war caused by Russia. “Russia is going to pay a huge price for the conflict, China will also lose out because it [the war] has accelerated the reverse of globalization which will damage China’s international trade,” Yan Xuetong observed. Hu Xijin, the former editor-in-chief of the Global Times – largely described in the global media as a pro-Beijing “nationalist” media outlet – has also often been “attacked” by the leftist intelligentsia and called “right-wing qinmei liberal.”
Calling themselves “patriotic,” China’s left-wing, orthodox Maoists, who enjoy wide support among the urban middle-class intelligentsia, especially as faculty and researchers in the country’s numerous small and big universities, have been critical of citizens who questioned and even condemned Russia on social media platforms in the immediate aftermath of the Ukraine conflict.
Dismissing most analysts who either cautioned the policymakers or warned the authorities in Beijing to tread carefully and not lead China into “second” isolation by backing Russia after the Covid-19 outbreak and “zero-COVID” policy, respectively, the Chinese leftists strongly advocated that only by siding with Russia can China break free from “isolate China” and “China containment” policies of the US-led West.
A recently uploaded article by one of the most influential ultra-left, Maoist websites have warned that as the war in Ukraine turns into a protracted war it will enter a new phase and acquire newer dimensions not yet seen. “A new phase of the war in which the battlefield fighting will take a back seat, and an all-around economic and ideological battle will be carried out. As and when the war enters such a phase, the pressure on China to choose a side will be even greater,” the article observed. In other words, the longer the war drags on – say 2-3 years from now, China more than Russia will become a key target of Western strikes.
To sum it up, some China watchers are calling Beijing’s almost “no limit” support to Putin’s “special military operation” the extension of the country’s currently “lean to the left” domestic policies. Writing in the latest online issue of Singapore’s thinkchina.sg, Lew Mon-hung, a former member of the China People’s Political Consultative Conference – also known as the Upper House of the Chinese parliament, but essentially an advisory body without any role in the decision-making – made a chilling observation that “China’s far left narratives are leading it into a dead end.”
A well-rounded Chinese debate on the Russian military action in Ukraine indeed seems to suggest that the Russians acted in response to the provocations by the West. However, what is also evident from the ongoing debate is that the pro-regime, qinmei, and the leftists – all three schools of thought are in a contest with each other to figure out what will benefit China the most – a Russian win or a Russian failure or a weakened Russia!