China’s and Russia’s narratives on Ukraine: Examining the boundaries of political alignment PART I
- This is the third in a series of reports on China-Russia relations since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It explores the content, extent and limits of China’s political support for Russia by comparing Russian and Chinese narratives about Russia’s war against Ukraine and related topics.
- China’s support for Russia has been comprehensive and enduring, but not without limits. Overall, China appears to support Russian narratives if they advance China’s long-term strategic interests. Most of these, such as ideas of a “power-hungry” United States, Western “weaponization” of sanctions and criticism of NATO and “bloc-based” confrontation, are tied to the countries’ common struggle against perceived US hegemonic power and the so-called US-led liberal world order.
- The clearest red line in China’s support for Russia is its distancing from Moscow’s threats of use of nuclear weapons. Chinese leaders have spoken out against such threats, although without explicitly pointing the finger at Russia. In addition, unlike Russia, China officially recognizes the sovereignty and legitimacy of the Ukrainian government, although President of China Xi Jinping refused to speak with his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, for the first 14 months of the war.
- While both countries portray Europeans as naive followers of the United States, Chinese criticism of Europe has been more subtle. While Russia regards European countries as a political threat, China has been more sympathetic towards Europe, portraying it as a victim of US greed and encouraging it to develop a more autonomous foreign policy.
- China’s selective and inconsistent use of criticism highlights its pro-Russia stance. China claims to stand behind the UN Charter and the principle that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states must be respected, on the one hand, while emphasizing that the “legitimate security concerns” of all states must be considered, on the other. The latter is a veiled way of saying that Russia’s protests over NATO expansion should have been taken more seriously. While China has repeatedly accused the United States of provoking the invasion by ignoring Russia’s concerns, it has never condemned or even criticized Russia for invading a sovereign state in what was a clear violation of the UN Charter.
- The war may have cemented some similarities in the official worldviews of China and Russia. Beijing’s pronouncements on “indivisible security” and the idea that the “legitimate security concerns of all countries must be respected” are well aligned with Moscow’s perspective. The inclusion of these concepts in China’s new framework for international security – the Global Security Initiative – has elevated their status, although Chinese endorsement of them goes back to the early 2000s. In fact, the core tenets that underpin China’s rhetorical support for Russia are rooted in concepts that China developed in the 1990s.
- China’s support for Russia is likely to remain robust insofar as Beijing continues to view Moscow as an indispensable partner in the struggle against US global hegemony, at least in the short to medium term. The pair’s similar views on international security also speak in favour of closer coordination. At the same time, we expect that China will continue to balance its support for Russia against the need to maintain stable relations with the West.
Just weeks before Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, Russia and China hailed their friendship as having “no limits” or “’forbidden’ areas of cooperation”. In the past 20 months, however, limitations to the friendship have become obvious, as China has had to balance political support for Russia against other considerations, such as its desire to present itself as a neutral peace broker and its need to prevent a complete breakdown in relations with the West. China’s stance has been described as “pro-Russian neutrality”, whereby China supports Russia politically and – to a degree – economically but provides no direct military assistance. While China has moderately increased its energy trade with Russia and continues to trade extensively with the country in other areas, it has been careful not to overtly violate Western sanctions. Nor has it provided weapons or other offensive military equipment to Russia, at least not openly or to a significant extent, although Chinese companies have supplied components for such equipment.
While Chinese trade has helped keep the Russian economy afloat, analysts tend to agree that China’s strongest support for Russia has been political and diplomatic. China’s rhetorical support has facilitated Russia’s war against Ukraine in several respects. Without a belief that its powerful ally would provide at least some political support, Russia might not have launched the invasion in the first place. Chinese support has also undermined Western attempts to isolate Russia in the United Nations, lending a degree of legitimacy to the war. The consequences of this support extend beyond Russia’s war against Ukraine. It has played into existing anti-Western and pro-Russian sentiments in countries such as Brazil, India and others in the Global South. Moreover, China’s refusal to denounce Russia’s actions has served as an important signal to the world that it is possible for a major country to invade a sovereign state and annex parts of its territory without suffering universal condemnation and isolation. Lastly, China’s denouncement of Western sanctions fosters legitimacy for other countries to continue to trade with Russia, providing it with an economic lifeline and facilitating its war effort.
Despite the far-reaching implications of China’s political support for Russia’s war against Ukraine and beyond, the precise limitations of this support are not well understood. The media has often portrayed China as “embracing” or “echoing” Russian propaganda, as “parroting” Russia’s talking points or as having adopted the Russian narrative but such analyses seem to underestimate the differences. One study argues that Chinese support for Russia is restrained by the countries’ diverging views on a range of issues pertaining to key aspects of their bilateral cooperation, such as Eurasian infrastructure development and China’s engagement in the Arctic. Studies of Chinese domestic narratives have found a surprisingly diverse range of views on Russia and the war, which most Chinese experts view as a “proxy conflict” between the United States and China. Some Western analysts have described Chinese thinking about the war as “ever evolving”. Others highlight the continuity of the core ideas and principles that underpin China’s foreign policy doctrine. These analyses, however, tend to examine the Chinese narratives without systematically comparing them to Russian narratives, making it difficult to discern the subtle yet significant differences. This report analyses the content, extent and limits of China’s political support for Russia by comparing Russian and Chinese narratives about Russia’s war against Ukraine and related topics. A deeper, more precise understanding of the extent of China’s support, as well as of any red lines China has drawn regarding how far it is willing to go to go in defence of its partner, can serve as a basis for more informed assessments of how Russian-Chinese relations might evolve under different scenarios.
We have analysed official statements and semi-official texts written by actors linked to the Chinese and Russian states from the issuance of the joint statement on 4 February 2022, up to and including October 2023. These include statements by the countries’ leaders, foreign ministries and state media, as well as analyses by Russian and Chinese experts. In comparing the Russian and Chinese narratives about the war and related topics, several themes emerged that were selected for closer analysis. The findings are presented below.
The causes of the conflict and NATO’s culpability
China and Russia agree on the main causes of the conflict, although there are differences in presentation. Both countries believe that US power politics in Ukraine provoked Russia’s actions. Unlike the Russian narrative, however, which blames the entire “Western world” as well as the Ukrainian government, China focuses on the actions of the United States and NATO. Both countries also believe that NATO is dominated by the United States and that NATO expansion threatens Russia and the stability of Europe. Chinese officials now also increasingly portray NATO and “NATO-like organizations” as a serious threat to their own country.
RUSSIA: The fundamental reason for the war is that Western plotting in Ukraine forced Russia to act to protect Russian interests. Russia’s rhetoric around the causes of the war is multifaceted and comprises several different elements, but the basic building blocks of the narrative are relatively simple and recurring: the West’s aggressive, power-hungry, anti-Russian machinations in Ukraine forced Russia to act to protect fundamental Russian interests. This is the linchpin on which all the Russian representatives’ varieties of explanations for the so-called special military operation are based – whether it is about stopping NATO’s eastward expansion, eliminating Ukrainian neo-Nazis, drug addicts and Satanists, protecting Russian speakers and Russians in Ukraine or defending the motherland from military, nuclear, biochemical, cultural or demographic threats. This basic narrative can be consistently and frequently found in speeches made since the outbreak of the war by Vladimir Putin, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and many other Russian representatives.
In the Russian narrative, control of Ukraine is part of the West’s goal of achieving global dominance and destroying Russia. Although Russia launched the “special military operation”, this was in Russian eyes an inevitable and necessary consequence of and response to the “civilizational war” that the West was already waging against Russia. The goal of this civilizational war is to contain, undermine and ultimately destroy Russia. If Russia had not acted in February 2022, a US-dominated NATO would have continued its campaign to threaten Russia through Ukraine:
It is no secret that the US-led collective West, striving for global domination, unleashed an all-out hybrid war against our Motherland. The enemy is not hiding its goal, which is to […] significantly weaken or even annihilate the centuries-old national statehood [of Russia]. (Lavrov, October 25, 2022)
CHINA: Like Russia, China has tried to shift the focus from the immediate cause of the war – Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine – to what it considers to be its underlying causes. In the week before the Russian invasion, Foreign Minister Wang Yi asked rhetorically, “If NATO continues to expand eastwards... will it contribute to long-term stability in Europe?” A foreign ministry spokesperson went a step further when, on the day before the invasion, she asked, “As the United States pushed for five rounds of NATO expansion eastward, all the way to Russia’s doorstep, and deployed advanced offensive strategic weapons ... did it ever think about the consequences of pushing a large country up against the wall?” An analysis in Guangming Daily, a newspaper controlled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), noted that “the United States and NATO have constantly used the Ukraine issue to irritate Russia over the past 30 years”. The idea that NATO provoked Russia’s actions has been a consistent theme in China’s rhetoric about the war in Ukraine. On January 30, 2023, it accused the United States of having “instigated” the “Ukraine crisis” and being “the biggest driving force” behind it. By continuing to send heavy weaponry to Ukraine, the US has “prolonged and intensified the conflict”.
China has not blamed or condemned Russia, but on the contrary expressed understanding for Russia’s actions. On the day of the Russian invasion, Wang Yi told Sergey Lavrov that China “understands the Russian side’s legitimate concerns regarding security issues”. At the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs press conference on the same day, a reporter from Bloomberg asked whether China considered Russia’s actions to constitute an invasion and a violation of the UN Charter. The spokesperson responded that the situation had a “complex historical background” and that Russia had announced that its special military operation in eastern Ukraine would not shell cities. Since then, the foreign ministry has avoided using words like “invasion” or “war” to describe Russia’s actions, instead using the term special military operation or referring to the war as the “Ukraine crisis” or the “Russian-Ukrainian conflict”. China’s party- and state-controlled media have also avoided words like “invasion” or “war” in their reporting.
China has been distrustful of military alliances since long before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Opposition to “military blocs” has been an important element of Chinese security policy since the 1990s. In a joint statement in 1997, two years before the accession of Czechia, Hungary and Poland to NATO, China and Russia opposed “attempts to enlarge and strengthen military blocs” because this would “pose a threat to the security of certain countries and exacerbate regional and global tensions”. The accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade by NATO forces in 1999, which killed three Chinese citizens and which the Chinese government described as a deliberate “barbarian act”, has also shaped Chinese views of NATO.
Because of its role as a regional transatlantic organization, NATO was until recently an issue of secondary concern for China. It has received significantly more official attention since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, however, which is described in detail in Hillevi Pårup’s study “China’s view of NATO and Swedish membership”, published by the Swedish National China Centre in July 2022. NATO has become a recurring topic for Chinese representatives who have spoken out more frequently and explained their views on the organization in greater detail. As Pårup points out, this growing interest is also visible in Chinese-language media, where mentions of NATO have increased significantly since February 2022.
Since the release of NATO’s new strategic concept in June 2022, the first NATO planning document to identify China as a security challenge, there has been growing concern in China that NATO will get involved in China’s neighbourhood. In China’s eyes, US ambitions are not restricted to expanding NATO in Europe. It seeks to extend its reach into Asia, transforming NATO from a transatlantic organization into a global military alliance. In a joint statement in March 2023, China and Russia urged NATO “to abide by its commitment as a regional and defensive organization”, a formulation not found in the joint statement issued in February 2022. The countries also “expressed serious concern over NATO’s continued strengthening of military-security ties with Asia-Pacific countries, which undermines regional peace and stability”. It is seen as particularly worrying that Japan and South Korea, which are portrayed as NATO gateways to the region, have deepened their ties with the organization. In May 2023, the foreign ministry responded to a question about NATO’s plan to set up a liaison office in Japan – a plan that appears to have since been shelved – by stating that NATO “claims to be a regional organization” and “should not extend its geopolitical reach”.
Chinese leaders are also concerned that the United States is forming “NATO-like alliances” in Asia to contain China. Chinese observers have drawn parallels between NATO’s expansion in Europe and what they see as US attempts to form “exclusive” groupings in Asia, such as AUKUS, a security partnership between Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States, and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a security forum for Australia, India, Japan and the United States. Wang Yiwei, a professor at Renmin University, believes that by forming a “NATO-like alliance” in the Asia-Pacific region, the United States is now “target[ing] China [in Asia] just like what it did to Russia in Europe”.