China: Neutral on Ukraine?

March 07, 2023 10:44
Photo: Reuters

China has wrapped the cloak of neutrality around itself, saying that it wants peace talks leading to a political settlement in Ukraine.

Mao Ning, a Chinese spokesperson, said: “China’s position on the Ukraine crisis is consistent and clear. We have maintained communication with all parties concerned, including Ukraine.”

That is true, but it is only part of the truth. China’s communication with Russia is at the highest level: multiple contacts between President Xi Jinping and the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, in the last 12 months.

By contrast, Xi hasn’t spoken even once with Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian leader.

China’s so-called neutrality lacks credibility. Spokesperson Mao is right. China’s position is clear. It is pro-Russia.

Just how much China has done for Russia can be shown in dollars and cents. China-Russia trade rose by 34.3 percent in 2022 to a record $190 billion as China soaked up Russian energy exports boycotted by other nations.

Pundits have speculated that in Xi’s eyes Putin is now the junior partner in their “no limits” friendship. But that is likely to be a misjudgment.

Even in the Hu Jintao era, Putin was clearly the junior partner where the economic relationship was concerned. In 2014, a year after Xi became president, Russia’s trade with China trailed that of Malaysia.

The personal relationship between Xi and Putin doesn’t reflect their economic relationship. Xi sees Putin as a rare individual, someone to whom he can relate.

Dennis Wilder, a former veteran analyst for the CIA who is now a research fellow at Georgetown University, took part in a discussion Feb. 28 on the Xi-Putin relationship.

“When we talk about China’s attitude toward Russia, we talk as if it’s a very pragmatic, hard-headed decision on the Chinese part to straddle the subject of Ukraine, to try to have a semi-neutrality on Ukraine while still somewhat supporting the Russians,” Wilder said.

“I think that’s all true — but I think what is missed is the personal dimension of Xi Jinping and his relationship with Putin.”

Wilder added: “He has really a personal bond with Putin — he sees himself and Putin in the same place. In other words, they both are under extreme pressure from the United States and the West.

“So I think these two leaders are bonded in a way that we have not understood.”

If Xi sees Putin as a kindred soul, just what does the People’s Liberation Army think of the Russian military?

An inkling is provided in an article in the PLA’s official journal, the PLA Daily. According to The Diplomat, a Jan. 12 article on proposed Russian military reforms “reveals a rare degree of criticism of the Russian military performance in Ukraine.”

The PLA Daily article characterizes the core weakness of the Russian army as “deficiencies of the Russian battalion-level tactical groups,” such as their “lacking the ability to be self-sustaining in combat.” As a result, the Russians are proposing “to transform from a brigade back to a division system.”

The analysis concluded bluntly that Russia’s military, especially its ground forces, were too weak and their capabilities too limited to achieve their objectives.

It also criticized the Russian air force for having conducted “too few sorties,” and said that “the effectiveness of precision strikes was inadequate and coordination with the army was limited.”

While it is interesting to see Chinese comments and analysis on how poorly Russia has conducted the Ukraine war, it is fascinating to speculate how China’s views on the Ukraine war may affect how Beijing would carry out an attack on Taiwan if it eventually materializes.

While everyone talks about the Ukraine war, few discuss the Russia-China statement issued days before the war erupted.

According to Prof. Ho-fung Hung of Johns Hopkins University, everybody should reread that statement, which he said laid out a “systematic vision of a new world order that both Russia and China agree on.”

In that statement, Prof. Hung said, Russia and China indicate that they should have their own spheres of influence, with Russia claiming “the former Soviet space, including the former Soviet states and Eastern Europe,” and with China seeking dominance in the South China Sea, Taiwan and “the Asia-Pacific region.” Significantly, the Russian claim, which China backed, would include Ukraine, which was an integral part of the Soviet Union.

In that statement, the professor said, China and Russia back each other’s positions. “So it is a very clear manifestation of their shared strategic interests,” he added.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.