Zhou Bo: Why China is refusing to choose between Russia and Ukraine

  • Senior Colonel Zhou Bo (ret) is a senior fellow of the Centre for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University and a China Forum expert

    Three weeks into the Ukrainian war, even if the dust – hopefully not radioactive dust – has not settled, it is already a cliché to say the world has been reshaped.

    We are stepping into a world with two new cold wars to come. In Europe, where the war is raging on, panicking Europeans are already preparing for another cold war. The prospect of a “Russky Mir” (Russian world) has revived a “brain-dead” Nato.

    Germany, a country most reluctant to embark on military build-up, has reversed decades of hesitancy and poured 100 billion euros into its defence budget. This makes “European strategic autonomy”, so far a slogan French President Emmanuel Macron has been championing, look more probable down the road. The only question is whether it will add strength to the transatlantic alliance or weaken it.

    In Asia, the cold war that dawned with US president Donald Trump’s “great power competition” was intensified by Biden’s “extreme competition” with China. Biden had hoped to put Russia policy on a “stable and predictable” footing to focus on China, which is the US’ top priority. But the war in Europe further hollows out Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy, which already has too many purposes without adequate tools.

    If the key to small nations’ survival is making the right choice, then the art of living for a major power is to strike a balance. This is not “a moment of choice for China”, as Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison asserted.

    Should China ditch Russia and walk into the Western camp, it won’t even reap the benefit of expediency. China will lose a strategic partner, and it is only a matter of how quickly the US will take on China again.

    This explains why Beijing has expressed understanding of Russia’s “legitimate concerns” over Nato’s expansion while underlining that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries must be respected. It is also continuing to provide humanitarian aid to Ukraine.


    In tough times, China doesn’t need to look elsewhere for inspiration. It only needs to stand firm on some of its time-tested principles, which could be also illuminating for others.

    First, no-first-use of nuclear weapons. The Russian armed forces outgun and outnumber the Ukrainian forces, which have no nuclear weapons. Therefore, one wonders why Russian President Vladimir Putin needs to put his nuclear forces on high alert if this is not a strategy to“escalate to de-escalate”.

    This strategy risks encouraging would-be nuclear weapon states and is definitely a heavy blow to non-proliferation. But it could become an opportune moment too, for China and the US to demonstrate their responsible attitude through discussions on no-first-use of nuclear weapons, a position China has held since it detonated a nuclear device in 1964.

    Biden’s position that the “sole purpose” of the American arsenal “should be deterring – and if necessary, retaliating against – a nuclear attack” is not far from that of China. In mid-December 2021, nearly 700 scientists and engineers, including 21 Nobel laureates, asked Biden to cut the US nuclear arsenal by a third, and to declare that the United States would never be the first to use nuclear weapons in a conflict.

    Second, non-alliance. The war in Ukraine again raises the West’s worst fears of the prospect of a China-Russia alliance. Such an alliance is impossible. Both China and Russia call for multipolarity, but for different reasons.

    No country has benefited so much from globalization as China, which has a strong stake in safeguarding the international order. Despite differences and even tensions sometimes, China has deep ties with the West, including the US, that neither wish to sever.

    In comparison, Russia resents the existing international order and sees itself as a victim. Putin called the break-up of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”.

    As long as China doesn’t harbour the desire for global military expansion which requires allies, it doesn’t need an alliance. All the military operations of the People’s Liberation Army overseas are humanitarian in nature. Its primary security concern lies in the Western Pacific, where the military balance between the PLA and the US military is closing.

    One thing that was crystal clear before the Russian-Ukraine war, and which remains clear today, is that neither the US nor the 30-member-strong Nato, which includes three nuclear powers, dares to confront Russia head on.

    China’s military strength is presumably no less formidable than Russia’s, apart from a nuclear arsenal that China chooses to keep small. The PLA is the largest armed force in the world in terms of active personnel. Its military budget, although less than 2 per cent of gross domestic product, is three times bigger than Russia’s. It has two aircraft carriers, with more in the pipeline, while Russia has just one.

    Third, no pursuit of spheres of influence. The war in Ukraine is a clash between Russia and Nato over spheres of influence. Perhaps no region looks more like China’s sphere of influence than East Asia, but it isn’t. North Korea won’t give up its nuclear weapons as China and the whole world wishes, quite a few countries are American allies, and in the South China Sea, China has disputes with a few claimants.

    The “Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States” released in February claims that “[China] is combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological might as it pursues a sphere of influence in the Indo-Pacific”.

    This cannot be more wrong. “Influence” and “sphere of influence” are two different things. Today, China’s influence, especially in the economic field, is already felt worldwide. Therefore, it doesn’t need to establish spheres of influence anywhere that are costly and difficult to maintain.

    The war in Ukraine, however disruptive, won’t stop the global political and economic shifts towards Asia with China at the centre. China is now the eye in the storm. Therefore, it should be the stabiliser. The benefit of making no choice is avoiding a bad choice.

    (Originally published on SCMP on Mar. 16, 2022)

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