China’s decision to abstain on Friday night at the end of the UN security council vote condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine may be a source of deep frustration in the west, but it will also send a nervous tremor through the Russian ministry of foreign affairs that China’s protection is not unconditional.
UK-based diplomats, looking at the stance adopted by China in the middle of the week, were expecting Beijing to join Russia in voting against the US-sponsored motion, but in common with the United Arab Emirates and India, it abstained, leaving Russia isolated in deploying its veto power as a permanent member of the security council.
At one level, the vote represents the line of least resistance for China, and can be seen as a reversion to the safety of China’s long-standing support for the inviolability of borders, and advocacy of non-interference in the affairs of sovereign states. But there are tentative signs that China is uneasy at being seen to defend Putin’s methods, and the potential disruption to the world economy.
Putin may have shown his respect for China by delaying the invasion until after the Winter Olympics, but China was not consulted about the invasion. Chinese diplomats ridiculed forecasts of an invasion, and left many citizens in situ. The deeper partnership agreement signed with Russia on 4 February, the opening day of the Beijing Winter Olympics, was predicated on no invasion. China benefits from the existing world order, and finds the instability unsettling. The prospect of Russia being cut out of the Swift payment system may benefit Chinese efforts to build an alternative, but the short-term disruption is worrying.
It was noticeable, for instance, on Friday that Russia offered high-level talks with Ukraine in Minsk, albeit on unacceptable terms, after a conversation between Putin and President Xi Jinping.
Before the vote, the Chinese foreign minister took three calls from the foreign secretary Liz Truss, the EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, and Emmanuel Bonne, diplomatic counsellor to President Emmanuel Macron. China said in those calls it reiterated its support for non-interference, and the UN charter, but also expressed sympathy with Russia’s sense that it was threatened by Nato’s five successive rounds of expansion.
But even if China contorts itself by stubbornly refusing to describe Putin’s actions as an invasion, it has edged closer to including Russia in its criticism.
China on Friday emphasised that “it is absolutely imperative that all parties exercise necessary restraint in order to prevent the situation in Ukraine from deteriorating or even getting out of control. The safety of ordinary people’s lives and properties should be effectively safeguarded, and in particular, large-scale humanitarian crises have to be prevented.”
Ukraine, it said, should be a bridge of communication between the east and west, not the frontline of confrontations between major countries. That, by implication, suggests China would favour Ukraine being a neutral state.
The risk for Russia is that if it descends into pariah status, it will be left as a supplicant rather than a future partner with China. Within 10 years, Europe will have freed itself from dependence on Russian gas and oil – that has become a matter of urgent imperative in Rome and Berlin. Russia will be reliant on China as a customer.
There is a further danger for Russia. China prides itself on its influence in Africa. All the African representatives on the security council voted against Russia. The Kenyan ambassador did so by insisting that he had opposed previous western military interventions.
Further wider tests of African opinion are imminent.
Washington wants Russia’s culpability to be tested further before the 193-member general assembly at which all members vote. A broad alliance is forming behind Ukraine’s cause. In a debate on Wednesday countries from Guatemala to Turkey to Japan condemned Russia’s embrace of the separatist self-proclaimed republics, or voiced support for Ukraine.
In 2014, after the Russian capture of Crimea, the general assembly adopted a resolution declaring Russia’s referendum in Crimea invalid. It received 100 votes in favour, 11 against and 58 abstentions, while two dozen countries didn’t vote. The issues will be slightly different if there is a further vote, but the invasion has been more overt than 2014, social media more pervasive and China, its status growing on the world stage, finds it less easy to hide. With greater power perhaps will come greater responsibility.