Neglecting Russia’s security concerns
Chinese apologists and moderates have long criticized NATO and the European Union for their perceived aggressive eastward expansion. This, they argue, has been carried out without sufficient regard for Moscow’s national security interests and was bound to result in conflict. Both sides express some sympathy towards Russia’s grievances. Like China, Russia has seen its geopolitical space gradually constrained (地缘政治空间的挤压) by the West. It, too, has had to suffer criticism and lecturing by the western world. Russian resentment should have been better addressed, they say.
The apologists and the moderates
But apologists go a step further. They argue that Russia had no choice but to take up arms. Commenting on Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine, Shen Yi, a professor at Fudan University, writes that Russia had been cornered and had no alternative other than to fight back (必须绝地反击). Such views are common in China and are not just the product of Beijing’s propaganda machine. More bellicose tendencies are also discernible among some apologists and lay commentators who have called on Beijing to learn from the Russo-Ukrainian conflict. They want China to use similar tactics to settle its disputes over Taiwan and the South China Sea.
On the opposite side of the spectrum are those who have denounced Putin’s recent moves and expressed their support for the Ukrainian people. But such overt comments are tracked by China’s censors and thus remain rare. More common are the occasional jabs at, and palpable irritation with, Moscow’s tendency towards “adventurism”, “strongman politics” and “zero-sum thinking”. Russia is “reluctant to accept the reality that its international status is declining”, write Han Lu and Liu Feitao from the China Institute of International Studies (CIIS).
Moscow is evidently an awkward partner for Beijing and many moderates worry about the impact the relationship will have on China’s international reputation. Even some apologists believe that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a strategic mistake. So far, however, no one in China has dared call on their government to distance itself from Moscow. Many, like Cao Wei, a professor at China’s University of International Relations, are aware that “the foundations of this seemingly good relationship may not be as strong as they first appear.” Beijing is now taking extra care not to damage them. After all, as Zhang Hong, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), writes, “You can change friends, not neighbours. China and Russia as neighbouring countries have to get along”.
According to many of these analysts, Russia remains the only “pole” in China’s ideal multipolar world that can both act as a counterbalance to the US and side with Beijing when required. Other potential “poles” such as India or Japan have already shifted too far westwards, they say. Still, the Chinese remain hopeful that the EU's pursuit of strategic autonomy could help curb the influence of the US and become a "breakthrough point for China's diplomacy" (中国外交的突破点). So, as one professor from Nanjing University recently remarked, the Russo-Ukrainian war has created a new conundrum for Beijing — how to preserve its ties with Moscow without damaging its relations with the EU. The longer and deadlier the war in Ukraine becomes, the more of a headache this will be for Beijing.