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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchChina’s Ukraine Conundrum: Why the War Necessitates a Balancing Act

China’s Ukraine Conundrum: Why the War Necessitates a Balancing Act

Author:  Yan Xuetong 

Affiliation: Dean of the Institute of International Relations at Tsinghua University 

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs 

Date/Place: May 2, 2022/ USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article 

Word Count: 2145



Keywords: Ukraine War, China’s Strategic Predicament, Balancing Strategy, China’s Foreign Policy, Great Power Rivalry




Yan Xuetong argues that the war in Ukraine has put China in a strategic predicament regarding its relations with the United States, Russia, Europe, its neighboring countries, and the world as a whole. It has created troubles and political polarization for China at the internal level as well. He also argues that this hard situation has caused China many strategic losses, which it is likely to seek to minimize by adhering to a middle path based on a cautious balancing act between all major rival powers. 


The article is divided into three parts. The first part identifies the features of this strategic predicament in which China has found itself stuck because of the war. As China is the largest trading partner of both Russia and Ukraine and the largest importer of crude oil and natural gas in the world, it has a lot to lose because of Russia’s actions. And if China had known of the impending crisis, it would have done its best to prevent it, as the Chinese ambassador in Washington said. The conflict has disrupted commodity markets and disrupted supply chains, causing billions of dollars in losses to Chinese companies. Also, the war has exacerbated existing tensions between China and its neighbors in East Asia, as some of them have abandoned the hedging strategy through which they had been balancing their relations between China and the United States, becoming more aligned with the United States than before, fearing that China would conduct a similar behavior towards them as Russia did in Ukraine. The conflict has also given Washington an excuse to strike a new arms deal with Taiwan, the third in a row since President Biden took office. Moreover, the author suggests that the war will likely harm Chinese relations with the developing world, most of which voted in the United Nations to condemn Russia; China rejected the condemnation decisions. In addition to further straining Chinese-Western relations, the United States’ Western allies have expressed their willingness to join Washington’s efforts to impose secondary sanctions against Chinese companies that continue to do business with Russia. Finally, the war has deepened the political polarization within China between pro and anti-Russian action, as demonstrated by Chinese social media. Opponents have raised historical fears of Russian territorial expansion at the expense of some bordering Chinese territories.


In the second part, the author expresses China’s skepticism about the American approach to the conflict in Ukraine, as Beijing believes that Washington does not really want to end the conflict, but rather prolong it by deliberately escalating the war whenever there is a horizon for consensus between Russia and Ukraine. The US’s purpose is to weaken and defeat Russia and China together. The leading Chinese state-owned newspapers have accused Washington of “adding fuel to the flames.” According to them, the United States “is creating larger obstacles to a political solution to this crisis.” This appears in Washington’s behavior and the statements of its high-ranking officials regarding the ongoing conflict. According to Beijing, Washington is increasing military aid to Ukraine in order to deny Russia a diplomatic off-ramp for troop withdrawal. A previous comment by US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed China’s suspicions when he said that “we want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine.” Moreover, the author asserts that Washington does not intend to abandon or retreat from its rivalry with China in East Asia despite the conflict in Europe with Russia. So even if China condemns Russia’s military actions in Ukraine and joins Washington’s sanctions on Moscow, this will not mitigate the US containment policy against China.


Based on the foregoing, the author sees in the final part that China is pursuing a middle path between the two great powers based on a cautious balancing act. Beijing wants to avoid any strategic threats that would besiege it and cause serious damage to the peaceful environment that it wants to establish in order to maintain its continued economic development. China experienced something like this between 1958 and 1971 when it found itself besieged and facing the United States and the Soviet Union simultaneously. This caused it to plunge into great economic distress that negatively impacted the social life of the Chinese. Therefore, in the midst of the Ukrainian war, China seeks to avoid being trapped between Washington and Moscow again, and its officials are keen to formulate their official statements accurately and with great caution. Finally, the author stresses that it is unlikely China will deviate from the balancing policy unless the United States provides military support for Taiwan’s declaring de jure independence. He also argues that China has no ambition to play a leading role in global security affairs, especially in matters of war, because of the huge military disparity between it and the United States. But China intends to play an important role in shaping global economic norms as the world’s second-largest economic power.


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA  Senior Research Associate



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