Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, a curtain has risen on an engrossing theatre of international relations. The spotlight has swivelled towards China. In May, China cast a surprising vote in the UN General Assembly, supporting a resolution that described Russia as the aggressor in the conflict—a term that China had previously refrained from using. As a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council and the world’s second-largest economy, which has seen a notable increase in oil trade with Russia recently, China’s every move is watched with anticipation. So far, the Chinese leadership has been delivering a nuanced performance, calculated and poised, but a resolution to the conflict remains stubbornly elusive.
This political performance has provoked conjecture and critique globally. Some critics argue that China’s affinity with Russia – the ‘no-limits friendship’ Xi Jinping affirmed with Putin on the eve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – compromises Beijing’s ability to act as an impartial mediator. Others raise separate concerns about the Chinese leadership’s motivations, goals and diplomatic script.
Yet, these perspectives oversimplify the situation, reducing China’s actions to mere tactical manoeuvres. Arguably, the driving force behind China’s role is not solely based on the ‘no limits’ status of China-Russia relations. More fundamentally, it’s about Beijing’s inherent interest in sustaining regional stability and security. Viewed through this lens, while it may align with broader ambitions for global influence and showcase diplomatic finesse, above all, it underscores China’s enduring focus on maintaining geopolitical stability in its immediate surroundings.
Regional Stability in the Context of the Russia-Ukraine Crisis
China’s strategic and cautious decisions with regard to the Russian invasion of Ukraine demonstrate concern for regional security and stability. On 22 February 2023, Foreign Minister Wang Yi 王毅 went to Moscow, where he described the two countries’ bond as ‘mature, tough, tenacious and as stable as Mount Tai’ 成熟坚韧、稳如泰山. The official Chinese perspective is that this bond forms a political base for conflict resolution grounded in principles of ‘non-alignment, non-confrontation, and non-targeting of third parties’ 不结盟、不对抗、不针对第三方. Beijing appears to aim at ‘stabilising’ Russia—curbing Russia’s aggression and encouraging it towards peace talks, thus underscoring China’s potential to step into a mediating role in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine crisis.
Further illustrating its strategic intent, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs unveiled a ‘12-point plan’ just two days after Wang’s visit, on 24 February 2023. It calls for a political resolution to the conflict in line with the principles of the UN Charter: it ‘actively encourages peace talks’ 积极劝和促谈, and calls for a ceasefire to kickstart start negotiations between the Russia and Ukraine.
Reactions to this plan, however, vary significantly.
On the one hand, Chinese analysts view the ‘12-point plan’ with optimism. Professor Li Haidong 李海东 of the International Relations Research Institute of the Diplomatic Academy represents the view of some Chinese analysts who see the plan as comprehensive, describing it as ‘a rational, balanced and selfless plan’ that seeks to ‘return to the original issue’ 正本清源, subtly implying a need to address the root cause of geopolitical complexities, and suggesting that while the US’s attempts may have escalated the crisis, China has been remained genuinely neutral throughout the matter.
On the other hand, the world greeted China’s peace plan with caution. Many criticised the vagueness of the plan. Jo Inge Bekkevold, a senior China fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies, describes it as ‘clearly too abstract to be a road map to end the war’ in his article for Foreign Policy. Alexander Gabuev, Director Carnegie Russia Eurasia centre, dismisses it as merely ‘a laundry list’ drawn from the UN Charter. Others accused Beijing of a self-serving approach, that Beijing was casting its own interests above those of Ukraine by rebuking the sanctions against Russia, with which it is friendly, and criticising the broadening reach of US-led military alliances, which concerns it as well, especially in the Asia-Pacific.
Yet, these criticism of China’s strategic interest obscures a simple truth: China’s leaders are alarmed by the potential of this conflict to upset the strategic balance of the region, and possibly the world. Wang Huiyao 王辉耀, founder of the Centre for China and Globalisation, a leading think tank in China, says the ‘12-point plan’ should be seen as China’s ‘starting point’ rather than a full and detailed solution.
While the ‘12-point plan’ set the tone for Xi’s diplomatic visit to Moscow in March 2023, Xi himself seems to harbour reservations about drawing too close to Russia, wary of Russia’s potential to drag China into a diplomatic quagmire. Despite all the rhetoric around economic cooperation, it could be argued that there is no pressing incentive for China to significantly upgrade its political ties with Russia in the current scenario. As I have argued elsewhere, such reservation may stem from concerns about the potential ramifications of overtly supporting Russia in its actions against Ukraine. An explicit stance could result in increased diplomatic tensions, not only with Moscow should future disagreements arise, but also with other nations observing the situation. This approach might risk portraying China as a power playing favourites, thus jeopardising its cherished self-image as a global peace promoter.
If Xi recognises an over-tilt towards Russia could prove detrimental to China’s broader interests, then his subsequent moves demonstrate intent to balance this by reaching out to Ukraine. He spoke by phone in late April with Ukrainian President Zelensky, a call that Zelensky has described as ‘long and meaningful’ and a significant advancement in their bilateral relations. As the BBC reported, this call, along with Zelensky’s appointment of Pavlo Ryabikin, a former minister, as Ukraine’s ambassador to Beijing, is perceived to give a powerful impetus to their bilateral relationship development.
Xi also dispatched Li Hui 李辉, a diplomat known for his Moscow expertise, as a special envoy to Ukraine; Li, who was in Ukraine from 16-17 May, became the highest-ranking Chinese diplomat to visit since the Russian invasion. This sends a signal that China is willing to engage directly with Ukraine, thus avoiding the appearance of taking sides. In addition, Xi also prioritised the Ukraine crisis in discussions with French President Macron, European Commission President von der Leyen, and Brazilian President Lula.
Collectively, these actions, ranging from Wang Yi’s visit to Moscow, President Xi’s diplomatic trip to the same destination, his phone calls to Ukrainian leadership, his discussions with international leaders, and the deployment of special envoy Li Hui to Ukraine, reflect China’s nuanced approach to this geopolitical situation. These measures manifest Beijing’s aspiration to be viewed as a credible actor on the international stage, but also reflect China’s desire to cultivate regional stability while navigating a turbulent geopolitical landscape.
In light of the recent attempted coup in Russia, Beijing’s approach could be further tested. The mutiny, although it has sent shockwaves through the international community, has not stirred substantial reactions within China. Beijing did not let this incident change its stance of its self-defined neutrality. This was evident when it issued a brief statement on 25 June 2023 from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, referring to it as an ‘internal affair’ of Russia. The statement also expressed China’s support as a ‘friendly neighbour’ and ‘comprehensive strategic partner of the new era,’ urging Russia to ‘maintain national stability and achieve development and prosperity.’ This not only downplays the Wagner incident but also signals China’s cautious stance towards the situation, avoiding becoming embroiled in the situation and attempting to balance its strategic interests, navigating between the political dynamics of its key strategic partner and broader regional implications.
Backstage: Decoding China’s Motivations
China’s views on the Russia-Ukraine conflict on its western frontier are heavily informed by the situation to its east, particularly the growing tensions between China and US over the Taiwan Strait and Asia Pacific more generally. Seeing China as a rising ‘strategic competitor’, the US and its allies have focused on China’s challenge the US-supported ‘rules-based order’. From Beijing’s view, the US assembly of coalitions such as the Quad (the US, India, Japan and Australia) and AUKUS (the US, Australia and UK), implicitly, if not explicitly, aims to contain China’s rise. This US containment strategy seems to be most evident in the East and South China Seas, where the Chinese leadership is wary of Washington’s security and related links with South Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam in particular. The Quad and AUKUS are most deeply concerning from Beijing’s perspective. Da Wei 达巍, a professor of international relations and director of the Centre for Strategic and Security Studies at Tsinghua University, highlighted in his op-ed for Huanqiu (the Chinese version of the Global Times) that actions taken by the US – including sending congressional delegations to Taiwan, enforcing embargoes on exporting advanced chip technology to China, and pressuring other countries to partake in its strategic competition against China – have further aroused PRC suspicion of US motives, thereby heightening bilateral tensions and even risks conflict.
Beijing views US (and NATO) engagement in the Ukraine crisis in light of all this: Russia and Eurasia are the gaps in US ‘encirclement’ strategy.  As the US engagement in Eurasia grows, and concerted efforts to limit China’s influence in the East, particularly at ‘the first island chain’ (the islands and archipelagos stretching from the Kuril Islands, southwestward through Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Borneo),  and to constrain China’s access to the Indian and Pacific Oceans, China perceives Washington as attempting an ‘O-shaped encirclement’, aimed at surrounding and isolating China.
China’s interest in acting as a mediator in Ukraine aligns with its overarching diplomatic strategy: ‘Big powers are key; China’s neighbouring countries are the priority; developing countries are the foundation; multilateral platforms are the stage’. Under this framework, the US and EU are considered ‘big powers’, and Russia, as the ‘largest neighbour and comprehensive strategic partner of coordination’, ranks high in China’s diplomatic priorities. Xi’s speech in Moscow in March 2023 affirmed this, stating that ‘both countries see their relationship as a high priority in their overall diplomacy and policy on external affairs’.
China is in a complex position. If it is overly supportive of Russia, it risks being perceived as making a binary choice between the West and Russia, which could play into ‘new cold war’ rhetoric, intensify diplomatic confrontation and potentially bring economic sanctions. By the same token, if China and Russia formed a conventional military alliance, China would risk its long-sought relations with Europe – a region with which economic cooperation remains a top priority in China’s strategic agenda, making it a crucial player in China’s grand strategy.
Crucially, Beijing has asserted its preference for a multipolar world order and multilateral decision-making in international affairs. Multilateralism has benefited China extensively in the last decades, and Beijing has viewed Russia as a potential contributor to these goals. As suggested by Yang Jiemian 杨洁勉, senior fellow at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies and the brother of senior diplomat Yang Jiechi 杨洁篪, interactions between Beijing, Moscow, Europe, and Washington are seen as major determinants in future world affairs. In 2021, Yang proposed the notion of a ‘China-Russia-US-EU Quartet Strategy’ that could potentially be a framework for facilitating more harmonious international relations. 
This backdrop may shed light on why Beijing prefers to steer clear of publicly critiquing Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine or endorsing Western sanctions, preferring instead to ‘determine one’s position based on the merits of the situation’按照事情本身的是非曲直决定自身立场. China is keen to be seen to be taking a different approach from that of the US. In their emphasis that ‘dialogue’ is the most viable route out of the conflict, Chinese policymakers point to the actions of ‘specific countries’ forming ‘small cliques’ through traditional alliances – an oblique reference to countries such as the US, UK, and Australia and alliances like NATO or Quad. They argue that these behaviours further complicate the situation and pose additional challenges to ending the war. Rejecting Washington’s ‘Cold War mentality’ Beijing promotes a more multilateral and institutionalised approach, both in the case of Ukraine and the Indo-Pacific.
In conclusion, China’s dynamic strategy in the Russia-Ukraine conflict is neither driven by its historical relationship with Russia nor its ambitions to be a regional leader in Eurasia. It is deeply rooted in Beijing’s anxieties about peripheral security and its broader diplomatic philosophy. Understanding China’s potential role in resolving the conflict in Ukraine, therefore, requires apprehending the nuances of its foreign policy orientation and its motivation to navigate complex geopolitical landscapes. While international observers remain intensely vigilant of China’s adept diplomatic navigation in this progressively complex situation, it is clear that China’s policy posture in this scenario could play a significant role in shaping its future in the theatre of global geopolitics.
 Yang Yucai 杨育才, and Yuan Yi 袁毅. ‘Meiguo Zhongya zhanlüe tiaozheng ji diqu zhengce zouxiang’ 美国中亚战略调整及地区政策走向. Eluosi Dongou Zhongya yanjiu 俄罗斯东欧中亚研究 2 (2020): 19-37.
 See, Yoshihara, Toshi. ‘China’s vision of its seascape: the first island chain and Chinese seapower.’ Asian Politics & Policy 4, no. 3 (2012): 293-314.
 Yang Jiemian 杨洁勉, ‘Zhong E Mei Ou zhanlüe hudong tedian he fazhan qushi’ 中俄美欧战略互动特点和发展趋势 [The Characteristics and Development Trend of China-Russia-US-Europe Strategic Interaction], Eluosi yanjiu 俄罗斯研究 [Journal of Russian Studies] 3, 30-50 (2021).