Until very recently, China had mainly maintained a neutral stance toward political developments in other countries. However, this approach has shifted as Beijing has begun to manifest its hard power and exert more influence in regional and international politics, especially after the successful mediation by China between Saudi Arabia and Iran. It is a clear indication of the growing Chinese political effectiveness. Moreover, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent visit to Moscow exemplifies this change in perspective on world politics. The visit was historic since it shed light on an alternative discourse surrounding the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Russia and China declared a strong partnership agreement on Feb. 4, 2022, just several weeks before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin said that this cooperation agreement is not directed against the West, many observers have interpreted this agreement as the Chinese and Russians’ desire to establish a new power axis and to change the global order. Accordingly, China and Russia have initiated a comprehensive diplomatic offensive and established strategic relations with many countries.
The best example of the challenge against Western hegemony is the Ukrainian crisis. It is no secret that the West expects Russia to get stuck in the mud with the invasion of Ukraine. Therefore, Western countries have provided weapons to the Ukrainian military to increase their capacity. The West expects Ukrainian soldiers and people to suffer for the maximization of the national interests of the Western countries and to keep Russia bogged down. In the end, many observers believe that the war in Ukraine was a proxy war instigated by NATO and its leading member, the United States. This view posits that Russia and China joined forces to counter NATO’s eastward enlargement, which Russia views as a menace.
On the other hand, China has been trying to prevent Russia from paying a high price for its invasion of Ukraine. Instead, China wants Russia to threaten and challenge the West. While the West considers the invasion of Ukraine a war of attrition for Russia, China sees the same crisis as a war of attrition for the West. President Xi’s visit to Moscow last week supports Russia and its leader at a time when the West has increased pressure on Putin. Xi does not want Putin to suffer at the hands of Western countries.
China’s neutral stance
Over the past year, China has taken a position that is neither entirely supportive of the Russian invasion of Ukraine nor utterly opposed to it. Like many non-Western countries, China continued its economic relations with Russia and expanded its bilateral cooperation. Due to the Western economic sanctions against Russia, China has increased its trade volume with Russia. Contrary to the decline in the European-Russian trade in 2022, the Chinese-Russian trade has risen by 30% and reached a record high amount ($190 billion). Within a year after the eruption of the Ukrainian-Russian war, China’s imports from Russia rose almost 43% and reached $114 billion. Chinese liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) imports from Russia doubled in 2022. This partially compensates for the oil and natural gas sales Russia lost last year from the European Union.
Second, Russia has successfully diverted the attention of the West and the world’s public opinion to Eastern Europe, which benefitted China. The more prolonged the war in Ukraine, the more the West will compile power to the region. The continuation of the war may cause multiple crises, such as the energy crisis for European countries and the global food crisis. Thus, China has been trying to fill the power vacuum in international politics created by Western states.
Third, all recent developments demonstrate that the decline of the Western-dominated liberal international order and the American hegemony continues. Neither Western countries nor Western-founded international institutions can find solutions to global or regional crises. The rise of Chinese and Russian influence contributes to the ineffectiveness of Western countries. These two countries lead other international and regional actors in demand for political and economic power redistribution. China gradually expands its sphere of influence against the interests of Western countries.
Fourth, the rise of illiberalism, ultra-nationalism, racism and xenophobia in Western countries has ended the moral superiority of Western democracies. The promotion of democracy is not a Western-supported principle anymore. Western support for the return of despotic and authoritarian regimes to the Arab world was/is a clear indication of the new illiberal tendency in Western policies. Furthermore, the intra-Western institutional bonds have been weakened after several critical tests, such as the global economic crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic. The West is preoccupied mainly with its internal problems and does not enjoy a united position against external threats.
All in all, after the changing of the global balance of power, the rising powers such as China and Russia can imitate the unilateral and interventionist policies of the West. Therefore, President Putin always emphasizes that Western intervention in Ukrainian domestic politics led to the Russian invasion. Considering the dominant realist perspective of international politics, it is true that the pre-invasion Western interventions in 2013 played a significant role in the Russian invasion of the Crimean Peninsula. Russia and China see the Western interventionist policies as violating the current international order and one of its main principles, absolute sovereignty. This was put in the Chinese paper declared to resolve the Ukrainian crisis. China has called on all states to respect the full power of and understand other states’ security concerns.