China’s Precarious Balancing Act

In its efforts to maintain ties with both Russia and Europe, China is wading through a briar patch of conflicting interests and rapidly changing sentiments. While the country has no interest in being isolated, nor can it afford to abandon its warmongering friend and neighbor.

LONDON – Precisely how far China will go in supporting Russia has been one of the most important questions of the war in Ukraine. On February 20, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that China may soon provide arms (“lethal support”) to Moscow. But then, on February 24 – the anniversary of Russia’s invasion – China released a position paper calling for a political settlement to end the conflict, tellingly omitting any mention of its “no-limits partnership” with Russia.

China’s goal was to present itself as a neutral mediator. In fact, Beijing’s ties with Russia remain unchanged, even if this relationship has grown more exasperating for Chinese diplomats over the past year. Their job is to continue striking a delicate balance, a task that is becoming increasingly difficult as Russian President Vladimir Putin doubles down on nuclear brinkmanship and reckless rhetoric.

With Putin extolling the law of the jungle in its most brutal form, China must be careful not to involve itself too much in the conflict. After all, Russia is clearly losing, and China has high hopes of repairing ties with major European economies. But Putin is of course keen to signal that China has his back. That is why he recently rolled out the red carpet for China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, and then alluded to an (unconfirmed) upcoming visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Such diplomatic developments allow him to present China’s ambivalent position as, in fact, an endorsement of the invasion.