On Ukraine, Beijing’s ‘All of the Above’ Strategy Is Coming to an End

This quick take is part of our Crisis Crossroads series, which highlights timely analysis by CSIS scholars on the evolving situation in Ukraine and its security, economic, energy, and humanitarian effects.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Beijing’s diplomatic strategy can best be described as “all of the above.” On the one hand, Beijing has yet to outright oppose Putin’s actions. It has abstained from two votes at the UN Security Council critical of Russia, remains unwilling to call Russia’s actions an invasion (preferring instead the Moscow-approved language “special military operation”), and calls on NATO to consider Russia’s “legitimate security concerns.” On the other hand, Beijing continues to position itself as somewhat aloof from the conflict, making vague calls for “negotiation” and “dialogue” but remaining largely absent from active diplomatic participation.

It’s unclear how long Beijing can maintain this dual-track position. If the conflict drags on, with the accompanying human toll becoming even more egregious than it already is, Beijing’s unwillingness to call out Putin will be seen as enabling, if not outright support. Similarly, China cannot sit on the fence when it comes to complying with U.S. and EU sanctions targeting Russia. Indeed, many are watching to see just how long of a lifeline Xi Jinping will throw Putin as sanctions continue to hammer away at the Russian economy. The unity between the European Union and the United States and the severity of the tools they’ve so far deployed should give the Xi administration pause as it considers how much support it wants to throw in Putin’s direction.

More broadly, it’s becoming increasingly clear just how costly Beijing’s relationship with Russia has become. Xi Jinping made the extremely unwise choice of publicly elevating the bilateral relationship on February 4, when more than 100,000 Russian troops were already amassed on the Ukrainian border and the possibility of an invasion was becoming increasingly clear. His unwillingness to criticize Putin is undermining China’s attempt to position itself as a peacemaker and, more broadly, undermining its stated position as a defender of the UN system and a stable international order. In aligning with Putin in the event of a catastrophic and costly invasion, Xi Jinping has made a significant geopolitical mistake, one for which Beijing will be doing cleanup for some time to come.

Jude Blanchette holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.

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