The war in Ukraine has put China in a bind. As a friend of both Russia and Ukraine, China has no desire to choose sides. On the contrary, traditional Chinese wisdom holds that when two friends clash, the main objective should be to end the conflict through mediation. While China’s balanced position has aroused more than a little suspicion, it could end up hastening the end of the war – and easing tensions with the United States.
When the war began, Western observers pointed to China’s seemingly pro-Kremlin stance, reflected in statements by Chinese officials. refusal use the word “invasion” to describe Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, their charge that NATO’s actions have pushed Russian-Ukrainian tensions to the “breaking point”, and their critical Western sanctions. But Westerners paid less heed to China’s repeated calls for all countries to respect each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity – a clear, if indirect, rebuke to Russia – and provision humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
In fact, the West seemed keen to assume that China – which has forged a Cooperation agreement with Russia just three weeks before the invasion – was on Russia’s side. March 13, the day before meeting with his Chinese counterpart, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan warned that China would “absolutely” face consequences if it provided military assistance to Russia or helped the country evade Western sanctions.
Yet Sullivan’s Seven Hours Meet with China’s senior foreign policy adviser Yang Jiechi was not as antagonistic as one might expect. Yang reiterated China’s position to promote peace talks, so that the conflict can be ended as soon as possible. The next day, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian echoed Yang’s statements, noting that China is “completely objective, impartial and constructive.”
The same message dominated that of Chinese President Xi Jinping virtual meeting with US President Joe Biden a few days later. Xi described China’s regret at seeing Russia and Ukraine resort to military force to resolve their disagreements, and he expressed his hope that China and the United States would work together to restore peace.
There are reasons to believe that the United States is becoming more receptive to China’s position. Following the Biden-Xi meeting, the White House softened its language, noting that Biden had “outlined the implications and consequences” if China were to provide “material support” to Russia, and “underlined his support for a diplomatic resolution of the crisis”. In addition, the two leaders “agree on the importance of maintaining open lines of communication” in order to “manage competition” between their countries.
Following the meeting, China offered the United States further proof of its commitment to neutrality, announcing another humanitarian aid round to Ukraine. And Qin Gang, the Chinese ambassador to the United States, Explain that while China remains committed to its “unlimited” friendship with Russia, it has a “bottom line”: respect for the Charter of the United Nations.
On the US side, the US Trade Representative reinstated 352 expired product exclusions for Chinese exports from its “Section 301” tariffs. Although the number was lower than expected – 549 exclusions were eligible – many market analysts interpreted it as a goodwill gesture. And, in even better news for the markets, Chinese and American regulators seem ready to make progress towards an agreement on American audit inspections of Chinese companies listed in the United States.
China has long opposed U.S. requests to review Chinese companies’ accounting information for fear the companies could be coerced into disclosing sensitive information. But Chinese regulators have signaled a new willingness to make some concessions to avoid the delisting of Chinese companies, including instruct large firms to prepare for more audit disclosures. The market welcomed this change, boosting Chinese stock prices.
Such actions hardly herald the end of the US-China rivalry. The United States remains convinced that China has deceived the West – which has long supported its economic rise – by employing unfair trade practices, such as the forced transfer of technology. As such, any effort by Biden to soften the tough China policy he inherited from his predecessor, Donald Trump, is likely to come up against significant political constraints. China, for its part, insists that the United States is unfairly pursuing a containment policy that amounts to a betrayal of the two countries’ long-standing economic partnership.
These beliefs put both sides on the defensive. What neither side recognizes is that many of their fears are unfounded, fueled by anger and mistrust, rather than genuine threats.
In this context, the restoration of peaceful and constructive China-US relations should be done gradually, supported by the gradual rebuilding of trust. As the Chinese saying goes, “Three-foot ice does not form in a single cold day.”
As we have already begun to see, however, the war in Ukraine can help strengthen and maintain the conditions for a change in US-China relations, and recent moves could mark a turning point, at least in the economic realm. .
Russia’s war in Ukraine cannot be justified – and China has not attempted to do so. On the contrary, China’s humanitarian aid to Ukraine, coupled with its insistence on respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity, amounts to an implicit agreement with the United States and its allies that the war must end and the sovereignty and independence of Ukraine must be preserved. While US-China relations still have a long way to go, the war in Ukraine has reminded both sides that they have a common interest in peace and economic engagement.
Yang Yao is a professor at the China Center for Economic Research and the National School of Development, Peking University. Copyright: Project union2022, and published here with permission.