China and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: Initial responses and implications

Policy brief considering China's initial reaction to Russia's invasion of Ukraine

Camille Bourgeois-Fortin, Darren Choi, Sean Janke - 7 March 2022


China’s initial response 

China has been notably quiet and remarkably restrained in its initial reaction to Russia’s attack on Ukraine. China has distanced itself from any condemnation of Russia at the United Nations and has refused to qualify Russia’s attack as an “invasion”. Beijing’s statements have mentioned their concern for civilian casualties and supported the sovereignty of Ukraine (in line with their traditional language of non-interference and sovereignty), but they have simultaneously shifted much of the blame on the United States and NATO, and repeated Moscow’s claims of security concerns within the region. Beyond their typical criticism of the United States and the West, however, Beijing has been very careful with its public statements and showed great caution in balancing its position. The rapid Russian escalation in Ukraine has triggered vehement reactions from the international community and antagonized nations from across the globe. Such a situation poses a serious dilemma for China, as they look to balance competing and often contradictory interests. 

Russia and China are each other's most powerful partners and in recent years this relationship – sometimes portrayed as a “Beijing-Moscow axis” – has grown stronger. Bound by increased economic, security and political ties with Russia and shared disdain of the US, often sharing stances on various global issues, China has a lot at stake, and thus can hardly position itself against Russia. However, China has always been careful to avoid the term “ally” or “alliance” when speaking of Russia, preferring to use “strategic partnership.” While this may be a preference of language on China’s part, it also shows some level of continued strategic and diplomatic distance between Beijing and Moscow.

Given the close ties between China and Russia, along with the parallels to and potential precedence the Ukraine crisis creates for China and its relationship with Taiwan, there are clear motivations for China to not join the many countries condemning Russia’s actions and placing sanctions. Instead, China has taken an ambiguous and careful tone towards Russia’s invasion.

On the one hand, China has echoed some of Moscow’s messages, refusing to qualify the attack as an “invasion,” while condemning and shifting much of the blame to the West and NATO. On the other, China has simultaneously reiterated support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and come out against the violence. China’s position has shifted further as the crisis has progressed, with a recent shift away from Moscow’s language of a “special military operation” towards a more explicit “war.” Moreover, China’s actions have been even more ambiguous outside of the rhetoric. The absence of diplomatic support of Russia from China has been particularly noticeable. China abstained from voting for the UN Security Council resolution against Russia on February 25th and again during the UN General Assembly vote on March 2nd. Instead, Beijing reiterated its support for non-interference and the UN Charter’s sovereignty principles. China’s careful response to the Ukraine crisis is significant considering the recent proclamations of “no limits”  to the partnership between Beijing and Moscow; the limits of “no limits” are quickly being revealed. 

China’s careful and restrained reaction may stem from several areas of concern, including the fact that Beijing is aware that any support or justification of Russia’s behaviour could likely harm its already poor diplomatic relationship with the Western world (and beyond). The West has convinced much of the world to isolate Moscow economically and diplomatically, making it clear that supporting Russia’s invasion will be costly. While China has not aligned with the West, Beijing has taken on a more restrained and reluctant stance towards Russia. Chinese officials have been sure to remind the world that China and Russia are not formal allies, despite their recent statement of “unbreakable friendship” at the Winter Olympics in Beijing last month. Following the same rationale, China’s neutrality regarding the Security Council and General Assembly resolutions condemning Russia can be seen as a diplomatic win for Western nations, since this abstention left Russia isolated diplomatically. 

Chinese coverage and public opinion 

Domestically, Chinese media has repeated the government line that Russia’s actions in Ukraine are a direct response to protect its sovereign interests in face of NATO’s expansion and other threats from the US. Chinese newspapers have uniformly held to the government’s position on the war, blaming the United States for provoking Russia by leaving open the possibility that Ukraine could join NATO. However, Chinese state media also reflects the ambiguity of China’s response, providing more balanced coverage than one might expect. 

On the one hand, Chinese state media has been portraying the situation in Ukraine using Moscow’s words, calling it a “special military operation” targeting military installations. On the other hand, they have shared President Zelensky’s statements regarding death tolls, as well as images of explosions and the devastation in Ukraine. These mixed messages by state media reflect China’s own reluctance to fully back Russia in Ukraine. 

Interestingly, the Chinese public has been more vocal than its government for once on an international issue. Unlike the great majority of the world’s citizens, online opinion in China has been dominated by pro-Russia and pro-Putin sentiments. This wave of support is led mostly by young and nationalistic groups on Weibo. Their influence has been such that a translation of Mr. Putin’s speech went viral last week, circulated with the hashtag #putin10000wordsspeechfulltext, receiving 1.1 billion views within 24 hours. This wholehearted endorsement of Russia’s invasion reflects a generation of “online warriors” in China, who are growing to see the world as a win-or-lose dynamic between China and the West, especially the United States. Nonetheless, while the pro-war movement has been loud on the internet, images from the invasion of Ukraine have also shocked many other Chinese who have shared their disapproval on WeChat. However, unlike their counterparts, posts in opposition to Russia and opinions denouncing pro-war Chinese have been quickly censored and removed from the web. Overall, the Chinese public remains divided, but pro-Russia sentiments seem to be given a greater voice in China.

China’s immediate response to the invasion of Ukraine has been rhetorically ambiguous and quickly evolved as events have progressed. China has certainly not joined the West in explicitly condemning Russia's invasion. Instead, the Chinese government and state media have offered an ambiguous and careful mix of messaging, echoing some of Moscow’s claims while condemning other aspects of the invasion. Furthermore, China has been visibly reluctant to back Moscow diplomatically.  Beijing’s overall response reveals its difficulty in balancing the various implications of the Ukraine invasion in pursuit of China’s own interest. 

A common metaphor for China’s response to the crisis has been that of a tightrope walker; Beijing seeks to carefully balance multiple, often competing interests linked to the Ukraine crisis. From its respective relationships with Russia, Ukraine and the West, to its overall credibility on the world stage and its ambitions toward Taiwan, the potential repercussions of China’s response to these interests are considerable.


Implications for China 

Diplomatic implications

China’s relationship with Russia

The close diplomatic relationship between Moscow and Beijing has inevitably drawn China into the Ukraine crisis, despite China’s lack of direct involvement. The Ukraine crisis has highlighted both sides of this relationship: both the increasing strength of the Russia-China partnership, but also its limits.

China’s refusal to denounce Russia's actions and calls for consideration of Russia’s perspectives, despite much of the world’s disapproval, signal that there is significant alignment between the two powers. In the weeks leading up to the invasion; on the eve of the Winter Olympics, Xi and Putin held a summit where they denounced the further expansion of NATO; it was here that their partnership was upgraded to “no limits.” Furthermore, despite vehement denials from the Chinese, there were reports that Xi asked for a delay of the invasion until after the Winter Olympics; given the invasion’s timing, this is certainly possible. If the powers are as close as they claim, it is difficult to imagine China not having some idea of Putin’s invasion plans.

However, there are signs that Russia’s invasion is testing the limits of the China-Russia partnership, and that the two nations are not as closely aligned as they might wish to portray. Why has China not given Russia its full-throated support through a “No” vote at the Security Council or ensured a closer alignment between Chinese state media and Russian messaging on Ukraine? Instead, China’s careful and restrained response to Russia’s invasion is hardly the behaviour of two closely aligned powers. Moreover, the Chinese government has seemed surprised that Putin invaded at all. Observers have noted China’s slow response to the Russian invasion, most notably the delay in evacuating Chinese citizens from Ukraine. If Beijing was not fully aware of the extent of Putin’s plans for invasion, it calls to question the strategic alignment of these supposed “strategic partners.”

The Ukraine crisis has many possible long-term implications for China’s relationship with Russia. Moscow has surely taken notice that their supposed partner in China has been lukewarm at best on the international stage. Conversely, China has remained ambiguous and careful towards Russia’s actions. Despite the rhetoric of “limitless” friendship, China seems to have quickly reached its limits in supporting Moscow. Moreover, China must consider the continued viability of a partnership with an increasingly isolated Russia. While Beijing no doubt wishes to continue its partnership with Russia, China will also consider other competing priorities. 


China’s relationship with Ukraine

China’s diplomatic relationship with Ukraine is certainly outweighed in importance by China’s relationship with Russia. Nonetheless, the implications for continued relations with Kyiv are an important consideration for Chinese policymakers.

Prior to the invasion, there was strong potential within the China-Ukraine relationship. China was Ukraine’s largest trading partner, with US$19 billion worth of trade in 2019. Ukraine was also a key part of the BRI’s ambitions in Eastern Europe; China saw Ukraine as an important trading partner and a transit hub into the rest of Europe. China and Ukraine signed a landmark infrastructure deal in July 2021 and President Zelensky proclaimed Ukraine as China’s “bridge to Europe.”

Many of these hopes have likely been dashed. China’s plans for the BRI now lie within a warzone, and Ukraine’s economy will be in tatters. Even if Ukraine’s current government does survive, Ukrainians as a whole will likely be far less receptive to China after its lack of support for Ukraine.

China will have to wait until the conclusion of the war to see the full implications for the China-Ukraine relationship. No matter the result, however, China may find it far more difficult to operate and achieve its own goals in a post-war Ukraine.


China’s relationship with the West

China’s relationship with the West has obviously deteriorated in recent years. This does not, however, preclude China from considering the implications for its relationship with the West when formulating its policy response to the Ukraine crisis. As we noted earlier, China is extremely aware that support for Russia’s actions will have serious effects on its relationship with the West. 

While China has continued its usual rhetoric critical of NATO and the West, Beijing does not seem willing to deepen tensions with the West for the sake of Russia’s invasion. Chinese state banks, for example, restricted financing for Russian commodities in compliance with Western sanctions with little complaint. While China is hardly supportive of the West’s position, Ukraine does not seem like a battle China wishes to fight. This further explains China’s reluctance to fully support Russia. The Ukraine crisis, in China’s hopes, will not be a major point of contention in its relationship with the West.


Implications for Taiwan

Policymakers on both sides of the Taiwan strait are noting the West’s response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In some ways, the situation of Taiwan has parallels in Ukraine; however, they are key differences. Constitutionally, Ukraine is a sovereign country and recognized member of the UN, while Taiwan is a self-governing island without universally recognized sovereign status or unanimous international recognition. Although Ukraine and Taiwan are both faced with powerful neighbours with which they have difficult relationships, Taiwan possesses far stronger security guarantees from the West than Ukraine. Moreover, Taiwan is more developed with advanced industries and a modern military apparatus. A Chinese invasion of Taiwan would likely face greater resistance than those currently met by the Russian military in Ukraine. That being said, although they are in different positions, the parallels between Ukraine and Taiwan are sure to give world leaders pause. 

What conclusions Beijing will draw from the Ukraine crisis on Taiwan are yet to be seen. On the one hand, China might see Ukraine as a point of weakness from the West, a sign that they will not be willing to defend territories like Taiwan. On the other hand, however, Beijing might find the West far more united in Taiwan’s defence, as the Ukraine crisis has quickly unified the Western allies. Taipei is likely thinking along similar lines. Taiwan might doubt US commitment to direct involvement in defending its autonomy, pushing it to pursue other forms of security policy. However, Taiwan might also use Ukraine as an opportunity to reaffirm and strengthen Western and particularly American security guarantees with respect to China. 


Political implications

Beyond specific diplomatic relationships, the Ukraine crisis will have important implications for China’s overall political standing in the world.


Undermining China’s principles of sovereignty and non-interference

One of China’s most cherished principles on the world stage has been respecting sovereignty and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. Whether or not China has lived up to these principles, they are the favourite lines of Chinese diplomats around the world. The violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty by China’s strategic partner has significant implications for the credibility of these principles moving forward.

China has, throughout the crisis, continued its reiteration of respect for sovereignty and non-interference. However, these principles are difficult to reconcile with China’s ambiguous response to Russia’s invasion, and China’s words on sovereignty and non-interference are left ringing rather hollow. China attempting to hold two seemingly contradictory positions on the Ukraine crisis does not bode well for the credibility of China’s principles on the world stage. There are, however, potential avenues for China to gain credibility through its role in the Ukraine crisis.


China as a possible peacemaker

China also holds a potential opportunity to advance its standing on the world stage by positioning itself as the peacemaker in this crisis. China has sent signals to this effect, saying it is ready to “play a role” in a potential ceasefire. Many observers hope China will take advantage of its rare position as a global power that has maintained good relationships and close contacts with both Moscow and Kyiv to stop the fighting. A successful China-led effort to negotiate a ceasefire, end Russia’s invasion, and create a lasting peace would be a major win for China on the world stage; whether or not China is willing or able to do so remains to be seen.


Accelerating the autocracy/democracy divide

One of President Biden’s key diplomatic focuses has been the competition between democracies and autocratic governments. There is a growing view that an inescapable divide is forming in the world’s democracies and autocracies, pitting these nations in competition and potentially conflict. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has further accelerated this divide, severing most of the remaining ties between Russia and the West while cementing unity among Western democracies. Furthermore, the Ukraine crisis has brought the military and security dimensions of this divide to the forefront. The effect of Russia’s invasion on the autocracy/democracy divide was not lost on President Biden in his 2022 State of the Union address, where he cast the invasion of Ukraine as one part of a larger battle between democratic and autocratic nations.  Russia’s actions have, for now, put it at the forefront of autocracies in Western eyes, but China follows closely behind on this list. China’s government system and poor relations with the West place it firmly within the camp of autocracies. Thus, the acceleration of the divide and the magnification of military and security elements of that divide have important long-term consequences for China’s place in the world. 

The deepening of the divide between democracies and autocracies would further promote decoupling between China and the West; such decoupling has rapidly occurred between Russia and the West over the course of the Ukraine crisis. The deeper economic ties between China and the West make decoupling more complicated; nonetheless, the invasion of Ukraine may prompt democratic governments to decouple further from autocratic regimes in general. Alternatively, China might be pushed closer to the democratic camp due to the difficulty of decoupling; other existing tensions make this difficult to imagine, however. 

The magnification of the military aspects of the autocracy/democracy divide is also of significant concern to China. The invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated that regional security flashpoints could quickly escalate and dominate the relationship between democracies and autocracies. Already, China and the West have regular military friction in the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, etc. One of the lasting effects of the invasion of Ukraine might be the reintroduction of military conflicts - direct or indirect - between the great democratic and autocratic powers, the kinds of which have not been seen since the Cold War. 


Economic implications

For China, as a globally-integrated, trade-dependent economy, the instability created by war for the global economy and markets is highly problematic. Furthermore, Chinese companies must navigate the punishing sanctions imposed by Western economies on Russia and face reputational difficulties as China has not sided with the majority of other nations to denounce Russia’s military actions. There may be some positive implications for China, however. Most notably, an economically isolated Russia would be forced to deepen economic ties with China, as one of their few remaining customers. Already, China lifted import restrictions on Russian wheat. If Western sanctions continue, Russia will be forced to tie its economy far closer with China’s.

China may find some marginal economic benefits from maintaining close economic ties with Russia in the near term. Nonetheless, the economic implications especially in the medium to long term for China are likely to be overall negative. The human and economic costs of war and the associated sanctions will be a negative for the global economy which China is an integral part of. Peace is very much in China’s interest, further raising hopes that Beijing can play a role in ending this conflict. 



Camille Bourgeois-Fortin
Policy Research Assistant

Camille Bourgeois-Fortin is a Policy Research Assistant at the China Institute at the University of Alberta and a BA graduate of the University of Ottawa in International Development and Globalization, with a minor in China studies. She is currently finishing her MA in political Sciences, with her thesis focused on social policies and inner migration in China.



Darren Choi
Policy Research Assistant

Darren Choi is a Policy Research Assistant at the China Institute at the University of Alberta and a BA graduate with a major in Political Science and a minor in history.



Sean Janke
Policy Research Assistant

Sean Janke is a Policy Research Assistant at the China Institute at the University of Alberta and a BA graduate with a major in Political Science and a minor in German Language Studies.