Making Sense of China’s Interests in the War in Ukraine

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the military and humanitarian crisis it has precipitated in our European neighbourhood has compelled a range of questions about another security theatre – the Indo-Pacific – and shone light on the intentions and instincts of another authoritarian strategic rival, China. There are many legitimate questions to ask about the implications of the war in Ukraine for our choices in the Indo-Pacific and the evolving strategic calculations being made in Beijing, and just as many examples of less-convincing comparisons being made that may in fact prove counterproductive in strengthening our longer-term resilience.

In this article, Rana Mitter and I work briskly through a number of these issues, and highlight the areas where parallels between Ukraine and Taiwan, and Russia and China, are indeed worthy of examination.


China’s Reactions to the Russian Invasion of Ukraine

President Xi and President Putin met in Beijing during the Winter Olympics. The outcome of this meeting was a substantive international relations agreement that is notable for its strategic alignment and an emergent cohesion in narratives between the two authoritarian powers. The meeting also established some of the power dynamics of the relationship, with the Chinese securing a win in shaping a landmark bilateral gas supply deal – which will build a greater degree of resilience in Russia’s energy markets – in their favour.

We may never know the full extent of the discussions between the two leaders about Russia’s plans with regards to Ukraine, but our instincts are that the scale and scope of the military project were a surprise to President Xi, who had likely anticipated a more targeted operation focused on the Eastern parts of Ukraine it has already occupied or contested. China would typically be disinclined to support separatist movements, which would include any attempt by actors in Donetsk and Luhansk to declare ‘independence’ from Kyiv, something that Putin stated that he would authorise shortly before the full-scale invasion. This unease must have compelled the scramble in the immediate days following Russia’s transgression into Ukraine to forge a narrative for the international community around supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty – requiring a series of contortions to ensure consistency in its position on its own sovereign claims to Taiwan – and China’s choice to abstain from, not reject, the Western-led UN Security Council motions. It is also true that the global economy and security instability provoked by the war in Ukraine may well further test China’s leaders as they seek to maintain the country’s economic buoyancy in the face of rising domestic pressures in a number of key structural areas.

At the same time, the notion of China as a ‘broker’ to negotiate the end of Russia’s aggressions in Ukraine does not feel credible. Certainly, many Western nations are reviewing investment agreements and deals with China in a somewhat more cautious light in the wake of China’s strategic ambiguity on Ukraine, and the tough language of the recent EU-China Summit showed a greater willingness to harness the bloc’s combined strength as marketplace to hold China to account for its choices. Yet it is also the case that China’s leaders will identify longer-term direct and indirect opportunities from the crisis.

In the short term, there may be economic gains from access to discounted oil and gas, or to become a priority customer for grain from Russian-controlled areas of Ukraine. There is also the chance for China to position itself as a preferred provider for infrastructure construction in the Ukraine in the aftermath of the conflict, with Beijing able to stump up bold sums and underpin risk in a way that cash-strapped Western powers facing cost-of-living crises may struggle to match. In the longer term, there are possible geostrategic dividends for China, such as greater pressure on Russia to support China taking a role in the Arctic – and area in which Russia has increasingly sought to make sovereign territorial claims – and a boost in China’s role in Central Asia, where its relationship with Russia has sometimes been prone to tension.

More broadly, China recognises the value of selective engagement in the international order and is also comfortable and increasingly confident in forging its own Chinese-led initiatives – whether on climate action or infrastructure investment – to address issues of global concern. The war in Ukraine, and its consequences for inflation and energy provision, will consume vast Western resources, while also rendering their domestic environments more fragile. China will ultimately be less interested in playing a frontline role in the conflict, and more in ensuring it is in the best possible position to capitalise on its outcomes.


Implications for the Indo-Pacific ‘Tilt’

The UK’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy announced a ‘tilt’ to the Indo-Pacific, and questions have been raised about the viability of this initiative in light of the event of a ‘hard power’ conflict in the European neighbourhood. There is no question as to whether the UK should take a greater interest and stake in the Indo-Pacific region, which will undoubtedly be a theatre of substantial economic and security change over the coming century. The UK’s interests in the Indo-Pacific are diverse and spread across multiple fields – including trade and investment, development and climate action – of which defensive instruments are simply one prong of a much broader, integrated repertoire. Moreover, the ‘tilt’ was always expressed as such, avoiding the term ‘pivot,’ which would have more explicitly signalled a fundamental move away from other key regions.

It is legitimate to ask whether constrained resources will need to be spread even more thinly, but one can argue that the Ukraine conflict only intensifies the need for the West to take a more active posture in defending the liberal world order. Moreover, the Russian invasion has facilitated a form of liberal cooperation that feels more functional and cohesive than it has in some time, and could open conversations about longer-term structural projects – including the acceleration of burden-sharing initiatives around technology and innovation, the architecture of new frontiers of governance, and investments in infrastructure projects with clear security dimensions.

There are obvious Indo-Pacific angles to these, a fact which has been brought into clear focus by the troubling developments in the Solomon Islands around a new security cooperation agreement with China. The spirit of cooperation and the urgency of ambition we have seen come to fruition in the Ukraine crisis – not least of all, in terms of Germany’s dramatic recalibration of its defence commitments – is precisely the energy we will need to see dedicated to the even more complex landscape of the Indo-Pacific.


The Future of Taiwan

One of the most commonplace analogies drawn during the Ukraine crisis has been to consider a potential Chinese attack on Taiwan. The conceptual comparison is understandable, but a direct comparison is misleading. It is almost universally acknowledged that Ukraine’s sovereignty has been breached by the Russian invasion, whereas China does not recognise Taiwan as sovereign, and only a handful of small countries formally recognise the Republic of China on Taiwan as a nation-state. While an assault on Taiwan would be regarded an unacceptable interference in the island’s independence, such an act would not be seen at the United Nations as a formal breach of recognised borders in the same manner as the attack on Ukraine has been.

There are reasons to believe that an imminent attack on Taiwan is also unlikely. For China, the primary focus of 2022 will be to attempt to move past the pandemic, and ensuring that Xi Jinping gains his unprecedented third term in power. Strategic analysts point out that Taiwan’s beaches are not easy to assault, and that it is not certain that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) yet has the training to manage such a feat – although that could well change by the end of this decade. China has also seen how Russia has lost the international war of narratives and information, and will no doubt be aware that any strikes on the densely housed civilian population in Taiwan would be widely condemned. Like much of the rest of the world, China is also very dependent on Taiwan-manufactured high-end semiconductor chips, and any assault that would in some way jeopardise the short-term supply of these vital resources is improbable.

However, there are many elements of the Ukraine crisis that have given Taiwan’s planners pause for thought. Taiwan is currently under-powered in terms of its capabilities to address cyberattacks, and its armed forces may well be under-trained in many aspects of military warfare. The purchase of expensive defensive equipment is not alone a panacea; this year, for example, Taiwan’s air force pilots have crashed two Mirage jets. On a structural level, over 40 per cent of Taiwan’s exports still go to China, and the level of Western support remains ambiguous. There is currently no formal United States agreement to support Taiwan, which might lead to a situation not dissimilar to the NATO caution in the Ukraine conflict, where other countries fear to step in because they might provoke a wider conflict.

Nonetheless, key actors in the region such as Japan have begun to indicate that they regard Taiwan’s autonomy as key to maintaining regional stability. In the short term, Taiwan is very unlikely to move toward any formal declaration of independence, which would almost certainly lead to a direct Chinese military response. Instead, its leaders will be considering how best to strengthen its defences to make it as difficult as possible for any assault to succeed. In turn, China’s foreign policy and military establishment will be trying to calculate the best means of circumventing any initiatives aimed at deterring them – whether within Taiwan itself and in the wider regional and international community. If there is one lesson that Beijing will certainly bear in mind, it is the way that Russia sought to undertake a lightning strike-style campaign, but through a combination of poor tactics and over-enthusiasm to believe its own propaganda, ending up failing and becoming caught up in a lengthy and expensive war.

For the West, if it is indeed the case that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has either delayed or changed the parameters of a potential Chinese assault on Taiwan, then there is a clear impetus to accelerate and scale-up the proactive initiatives and deterrence mechanisms required to render such an outcome less probable, while making sure to devote careful attention to channels of dialogue with Beijing that keep the diplomatic temperature lowered. Russia’s shocking actions have undoubtedly proven more costly – in all senses – because of the failure of the West over many years to take difficult decisions around its entanglement with this authoritarian power. More broadly, liberal powers including the UK should be attuned to the realities of China’s objectives in the conflict in both the short- and longer-term, and ensure that we are able to anticipate its strategic choices in areas vital to our own interests – particularly in terms of the reconstruction of Ukraine, energy provision, and vital emerging geo-strategic theatres.


Sophia Gaston is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group

Rana Mitter is Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China at the University of Oxford

Sophia Gaston

Sophia is the Director of the British Foreign Policy Group.