China and War in Ukraine [PODCAST]

European Liberal Forum
European Liberal Forum

In this episode of the Liberal Europe Podcast, Leszek Jażdżewski (Fundacja Liberté!) welcomes Alicja Bachulska, a MapInfluenCE China analyst in Poland and a member of China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe (CHOICE). They talk about the impact of the Russian aggression in Ukraine in a more global context – with the focus on China.

Leszek Jażdżewski: It is March 16, more than twenty days after the launch of the Russian invasion in Ukraine. What has been a very hot topic is what may be the impact of China on the war and what might be its involvement in the conflict, if any. Could you please start by reflecting on the Russian approach in China for support in this war? Do you think China will help Russia? And if so, then in what way?

Alicja Bachulska, a MapInfluenCE China analyst in Poland and a member of China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe (CHOICE)
Alicja Bachulska, a MapInfluenCE China analyst in Poland and a member of China Observers in Central and Eastern Europe (CHOICE)

Alicja Bachulska: There is a lot to unpack here. First of all, it depends on the definition of help or aid. We have been hearing news about Russia allegedly asking China for military and economic aid for the war in Ukraine in the last couple of days. However, this does not necessarily translate into China’s willingness to positively respond to such a request. This is because China’s stance on this war is very vague at the moment, even though overall it is visible that Beijing is siding with Moscow rather than with the rest of the world.

This has several implications. First of all, the way China is speaking about the war is not by using the term ‘war’ in reference to this conflict. Instead, it employs Russian terminology, so it mentions a ‘special security operation’ in Ukraine or ‘Ukraine tensions.’ This is already the first level that shows that China is not trying to discursively support the West, but instead, it opts for the Russian interpretation of the events.

Also, if we consider the larger scheme of things and the way in which Chinese policy operates, it is obvious that China cannot make any radical statements about this war, because it still operates within a rather strict framework of its foreign policy. Already in the 1950s, still under Mao Zedong, China decided to choose the so-called “Five Rules for Peaceful Coexistence”, which means that the state has a set of narratives that it follows. For example, there is the rule of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. This does not mean that Chine does not interfere at all, obviously, but it does mean that it cannot be radical in terms of its strategic communications.

Does it mean that China sees this conflict more as a threat to its global interests? Or rather as an opportunity to get more influence over Russia? Will this false neutrality backfire and the Chinese will have to take a stance to avoid sanctions or will support its ally, Russia? Will the currently taken course work in the long run?

It really depends on how the situation evolves. Initially, in early February, when the Xi Jinping and Putin’s meeting took place in Beijing on the day of opening of the Winter Olympic Games, the two leaders published a document, which is very important in terms of the future trajectory of their relations between the two countries. It features a joint statement about the future of their international relationship, in which both Moscow and Beijing declare that they want to cooperate and work for the future of the international order which would be more secure for authoritarian states, like China and Russia.

There was a lot of speculation whether during the meeting Putin an Xi talked about Moscow’s plan to invade Ukraine, which was also backed by a meeting which happened the day before. It was a summit between the ministers of foreign affairs of China and Russia, in which they officially claimed that they had coordinated their policies on Ukraine.

We do not know what it actually means, but we can speculate that, maybe, Russia had informed Beijing about its plans. Probably, it had presented China with the best-case scenario, in which Russia thought it would win the conflict with a Blitzkrieg-like invasion and with a little resistance from the Ukrainian society. This might have been the scenario which could have been communicated to Xi. But this is only an informed guess, as we do not have any evidence to back this assumption.

However, China could have consciously agreed to such a scenario, as it would not change the international balance of power so badly, that it could negatively impact China. It was to be a small-scale, short invasion, which would translate into Russia’s growing sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. But this did not materialize, and now we are in this protracted crisis.

China is, clearly, very aware of the fact that it might, in the end, end up on the wrong side of history. Now, there is plenty of evidence about the atrocities committed by the Russian army, and China, because of this tacit help for Russia is seen increasingly as an actor enabling this war.

Let me now ask you about an article that has recently made an impact on international communities, namely Possible Outcomes of the Russian-Ukrainian War and the China’s Choice by Hu Wei, the vice-chairman of the Public Policy Research Center of the Counselor’s Office of the State Council – quite an official position. It strongly advises against the Chinese helping Russia in the conflict that would integrate the West, and, as the outcome, not only would the Iron Curtain could fall again –from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea, – but also it would result in a confrontation between the Western countries and its competitors. Does the article, which, from what I understand, is no longer available in China, reflect China’s view on the war?

First of all, the argument made by Hu Wei was very compelling. Interestingly, the author made a moral statement, which was also disguised in the language of power politics and realism. Overall, the main argument was that China should be more flexible in its attitude toward Ukraine, because Beijing’s tacit permission to the war may backfire and push China into a very severe international crisis with a lot of unintended consequences.

Hu Wei was also leaning toward the opinion that Russia will lose this war and that China should try to prevent further escalation and avoid being dragged into this conflict created by Putin. Despite that fact that all these arguments sound very appealing, especially to Western readers from liberal democracies, we still need to be aware of the broader context of the publication. First of all, despite the fact that Hu Wei is the vice-chairman of the Public Policy Research Center of the Counselor’s Office of the State Council, he is not a decision-maker. He is basically a public intellectual with quite a good reputation within the party state, but he is not in the position of power. Here, understanding what a ‘party state’ is crucial.

Basically, the way in which China operates is not that it has in place the separation of powers between the party and the state institutions. Instead, the state institutions mirror the party structure. In every formal setting in China, the party is more powerful and dominant over any kind of state organizations. In this context, Hu Wei is a public intellectual and although he might be well established and quite high in this hierarchy, his views do not reflect those of the central government or the top leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Here, when it comes to my assessment of the meaning of this article, I would like to relate to what James Palmer, the Deputy Editor of the Foreign Policy wrote about it on Twitter, as I agree with his evaluation. According to him, what Hu Wei wrote is an accurate analysis of what China should do, but it is by no means an indication of what it will do. Maybe there are some individuals within the party state who share similar views with Hu Wei, but structurally speaking, these views have no power over the actual decision-making processes under Xi Jinping.

Moreover, as you have mentioned, what happened with this publication is the ultimate proof of how inconsequential this piece is, because the article was not only censored in Chinese social media, but also the website of the outlet which initially had published the piece, the U.S.-China Perception Monitor, a U.S.-based niche online publication, about which most Chinese netizens probably do not even know about, was banned altogether and is now inaccessible in mainland China.

Here, we come at the issue of Chinese internet censorship and its systemic nature. The way it works is that it creates even more powerful echo chambers, compared to the ones we are accustomed to in the non-Chinese internet. This does not mean that there are no opposing voices within the Chinese society, but rather what we can observe is, what I call, a ‘curated vision of social attitudes.’ So what we see is a lot of pro-Russian content, whereas the content similar to what Hu Wei has written basically disappears from Chinese internet.

I had a problem with this analysis because it almost seemed as if it was written by a Western expert. It was hard to believe especially given the affiliation of Hu Wei, as it seems he is also an advisor to the party, is that correct?

Yes, but this ties exactly to what I have said about the party state. There are advisors who are not members of the CCP structures, but as advisors the oftentimes serve as a kind of smoke screen for a democratic vision of China, according to which the government supposedly listens to these various voices, and then takes them into account in the formal decision-making processes.

Obviously, in some cases, this is true. However, I do not think that in this situation, given what happened to the article later on, we should not be too optimistic and think that this is the dominant view of the central government these days. I think it is far from what is currently going on.

When Hu Wei suggests that China should avoid playing both sides and give up being neutral, and instead should chose the mainstream position, because, in the end, Russia’s failure would mean strengthening the West and China’s isolation, do you think that this perception could prevail in the close circle of Xi Jinping or the wider party circles? Would China’s confrontation with the United States mean that it would eventually rather support Russia indirectly? As it seems that China views the U.S.-dominated world as the main challenge, and other aspects (international stability, globalization, and developing economy etc.) as secondary issues.

This very much depend on how the conflict will evolve. Currently, we are in a ‘middle-ground’ scenario, where Russia has become involved in a prolonged conflict. China would probably like for this conflict to de-escalate, so that Moscow is not pushed to its limits. If this happens, Russia might become more unpredictable – and China does not want to end up in a situation where it is backing an unpredictable regime that may lead to a further escalation, with China becoming even more marginalized.

The tensions between China and the United States, as well as the European Union, have been going on for the last couple of years – even before the COVID-19 pandemic. However, currently, what China would like to see is for Russia to engage itself in a long-term competition with Western democracies, while still being able to continue Putin’s rule inside the country. This would eb a positive development for Beijing for at least two reasons.

First of all, because this might translate into the United States being less focused on the Indo-Pacific. China does not want to see growing interference in, what it perceives as, its own backyard – the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait, and the broader Indo-Pacific region. But also, if Russia indeed engages in this long-term competition, without provoking further internal destabilization within its borders, this would negatively affect the overall condition of Western democracies, because it would force them to focus mostly on deterring the Russian threat in Moscow and its growing sphere of European influence. It would probably also mean that Europe would not be able to focus so much on creating a united front against growing China.

Last but not least, there is the worst-case scenario for China, in which Moscow fails in every aspect, and some form of a regime change unfolds in Russia, with the power being transferred to pro-Western forces. At the moment, this seems like an almost sci-fi scenario, but if this was ever to materialize, China would remain the only big global player, the only systemic competitor with the Western democracies left. It would likely grow increasingly alienated and endangered by a spill-over effect from Russia along their shared border.

Such a turn of events would be very problematic for China, and the country does not want to see this scenario become reality any time soon. Still, currently, what brings China and Russia together is their shared belief that Western democracies still pose a threat to their regimes – in Beijing and Moscow. This is why both these countries share a vision for a future world order in which international rules and standards are set increasingly by states like China and Russia. This would, in turn, translate into them gaining a more powerful position – not only domestically, but also when it comes to multi-lateral institutions, global forums, rule-setting, among others.

As I have also mentioned before, China is increasingly afraid that it may actually end up on the wrong side of history. The news of Russia allegedly asking for Chinese help in their conflict in Ukraine, is an example of adding pressure on China to realize what the consequences might be if the global public opinion acknowledges that China is, in fact, an active enabler of this war – and not only an actor that is somehow trying to side with Russia, yet still sitting on the fence.

It seems that China could lose a lot if it does not refuse to support the war in Ukraine. It still remains to be seen what Russia hopes to get from China in terms of aid. On the other hand, if Putin fails, China will lose strategically, which is why it will probably remain cautious for the time being. If the conflict escalates, it will be harder to maintain this seemingly neutral position, though. Yet, there is another war that everyone anticipated – does the war in Ukraine resonate with the Taiwanese question? Is it discussed in China? Is there any link between these two issues?

When it comes to the alleged details of a military aid that China might provide to Russia, the journalist from the Financial Times who broke the story, also released some additional information, which has not yet been verified – both Chinese and U.S. officials refused to comment on these allegations. Nevertheless, according to that journalist, the military aid that Russia had requested was rather broad. It was not only conventional gear, but also technical support, or even such basic items as pre-packaged military food kits, which are produced in China. So, clearly, it is not the most advanced aid that one might imagine. If this is true, it would reveal just how bad the situation in the Russian army is.

When it comes to the Taiwanese question, it is a rather important one. First of all, we tend to think about the Taiwan issue as if Taiwan was just a pawn in a broader game between great powers – this is how both the media, and some observers often portray this issue. As if Taiwan had no agency, no decision-making power on its own, no civil society, or no interests. This is clearly not the case.

Both China and Taiwan are closely watching what is going on in Ukraine, because first of all, it is a test for Western democracies and for multi-lateral organizations in terms of their reaction. I think that, at the very beginning of the invasion, China and Russia believed their own propaganda about the West being ‘rotten’ and unable to show any kind of solidarity in the face of such a threat. As we know now, two weeks after the start of the invasion, it was not the case. What Putin managed to realize in terms of speeding up the process of solidarity building is unprecedented. From this point of view, it is a great lesson for China about what might actually happen if Beijing decides to step up its game and – maybe not invade Taiwan, – but certainly increase its destabilization tactics across the Taiwan Strait.

Taiwan itself is very active when it comes to supporting Ukraine – both with symbolic acts of support and physical aid to the people of Ukraine. We still have to remember that it is not only about the two superpowers – China and the United States, – but also about Taiwan itself, which has its own agency and is able to react to this kind of threat. I hope that China is aware that if any kind of war was to break out across the Taiwan Strait, China would end up with its own Ukraine- with Taiwanese people who have very strong and increasingly anti-PRC self-identity. The majority of the Taiwanese identifies, at the moment, with the Chinese in terms of their culture, but politically, it is a society that does not support the methods, nor the political system advocated by the Chinese Communist Party.

It is a valid point that, in this great power competition – the struggle of Ukraine against the overwhelming Russian forces, and the very good condition of the Taiwanese defenses, – we should not ignore these smaller countries, because they could be indigestible for the bigger powers. Especially, if international communities show solidarity and support them in times of war, or an unconventional war. This sends a very hopeful message for the small countries with big aggressive neighbors – like Russia or China. You are an expert in narratives. How has the Chinese soft power changed to allow it to influence the Western discourse? It seems like I t has been a very long, yet successful process. How can we deconstruct the Chinese narrative that we now take for granted in the West?

For a long time, there has been a widespread assumption that China’s soft power is quite week in terms of its cultural impact. That it has no equivalent of South Korean K-pop or K-Dramas, or manga and anime in Japan. Instead, China’s soft power, in my view, is about developing certain normative narratives about the nature of the Chinese statehood, culture, or economy. All these narratives have somehow become naturalized and rationalized in the mainstream media discourse in Europe and the United States.

There is, in a way, a common-sense knowledge that China is a country with 5,000 years of history, that the Chinese state is extremely efficient when it comes to allocation of resources, or that the Chinese Communist Party plans for decades, not years. Also, the narrative of the peaceful development of China and its alleged lack of involvement in any wars or aggressive conflicts. These are the examples of what I see as a form of soft power. It is likely that you have also encountered these kinds of narratives in the debate about China.

Unfortunately, these narratives, promoted in the last couple of decades by the Chinese media, intellectuals, and diplomats, and which present a kind of Orientalized vision of China as this far-away but friendly country, which does not pose any economic threats to its partners, are often missed. The narrative of China being interested only in its economic development and trade cooperation without politicizing these issues is another example of China’s soft power, which is not based in the reality.

Domestically, the narrative about the deficiency can be problematized by the existence of ghost towns – huge cities that were built all throughout China because of an infrastructural boom after 2008. There is talk of a lot about the misallocation of resources – empty residential buildings, infrastructure that has been unused for many years.

Then, there is the example of long-term planning. If we look, for example, at one of the most disastrous policies the CCP introduced, the one-child policy, it was basically a contradiction of thoughtful long-term planning. Coupled with sexism and a traditional preference for male children, the one-child policy has resulted in one of the most drastic gender imbalances globally – within only a few decades. China is facing a huge demographic crisis – not only because the society is aging overall, but also because millions of men will be unable to find spouses.

Furthermore, when we look at how the ‘5,000 years of history’ narrative – the official lifespan of the Chinese history, – was constructed over the years, this lifespan had been expanding proportionally to what Beijing wanted to achieve on the international stage. The bigger China’s ambitions were, the longer its history became.

There are numerous other examples I could talk about in terms of creating these narratives, but it is a topic for another discussion.

It is a truly fascinating subject. The success of these narratives regardless of facts is remarkable. It also shows us how, sometimes, a neglected sphere of public discourse or a public policy comes into the foreground of how we see the power struggle and the world in general. We can only wish that our narratives were as successful in China, as the Chinese are in the West. On another note, what are the books or articles that you would recommend on the subject that we have just discussed?

When it comes to the Sino-Russian relations, I would recommend a great report by the experts from a Warsaw-based think tank, the OSW Centre for Eastern Studies, The Beijing-Moscow Axis: The Foundations of an Asymmetric Alliance. It was published in November 2021, and constitutes a very comprehensive, yet accessible, analysis of how the relations between China and Russia have been developing over the last decades or so. It is a great background reading for those who are unaware of the extent of closeness between these two countries, and what may be its implications for countries like Poland. All the authors who were involved in preparing this report have skills in Chinese or Russian languages and are fluent in the cultural and political intricacies of both of these states.

Another publication I would recommend, this time in relation to the narratives we have talked about, would be an essay by Professor Anja-Désirée Senz of Heidelberg University, titled Unmaking China’s Myths. It is an introduction to a series about the topic of these myths, which we often encounter in the public debate. It is a great, and short, analysis of how the perceptions of China are often framed through myths and not facts. The author also analyzes where do these myths come from, and what assumptions are we making when we employ them.

This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of it.

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