Is China changing its stance on Russia, and quietly beginning to take Ukraine’s side in the war? The answer is of course no, but that’s the startling question I found myself asking – which I would have thought preposterous only a short time ago – because of two surprising pieces of information, both relating to the Chinese commercial drone manufacturer DJI.
Firstly, I heard last week from a reliable source that DJI – whose drones have been used extensively by both Ukraine and Russia – is now allowing the sale of their drones to individuals and companies in Ukraine. Previously, DJI drones had to be purchased illicitly by third parties in countries like Poland, before being transported into Ukraine.
This was interesting, but not much to go on. While I thought it would be very unlikely for DJI to have acted without Chinese government sanction (especially since its government connection is well known and given their products are ‘dual use’), this only led me to wonder whether this was a sign that China was trying to soften criticism in the event of it allowing military drones to be sold to Russia, as the U.S. thought they might. After all, supplying both sides with drones could be a middle course, of sorts.
Then this Friday it was reported that DJI is no longer allowing the sale of its drones to Russia – and has even prevented users in Russia downloading the necessary drone control app. (DJI previously claimed they weren’t supplying drones to Russia, although in reality they could still be bought there.)
But is this really a reflection of a change in Chinese government policy? If it is, we wouldn’t get an announcement from the CCP. That’s not how they do things – even the end of lockdown barely rated a mention. But there are hints of such a change, through shifts in tone and emphasis.
Firstly, consider China’s actions around the time of the full-scale invasion last February. At the Beijing Winter Olympics, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping issued a joint statement, essentially repeating earlier diplomatic statements, which included the following line:
Friendship between the two States has no limits, there are no ‘forbidden’ areas of co-operation.
With over 150,000 Russian troops on Ukraine’s borders, this was widely taken as a green light for the full-scale invasion that Russia launched three weeks later. At the same time, China emphasised Russia’s “legitimate security concerns” and the dangers of “expanding military blocs” in discussions between China’s “top diplomat” Wang Yi and U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken in January and February. This was code for the key Russian talking point: their claimed fears of NATO influence and expansion, a spurious justification for the invasion that I’ve previously addressed. As well as repeating this argument through diplomatic channels, it was promoted domestically by Chinese state-owned media. They were echoing the Russian line.
The reason for this is, arguably, that China took the view that a quick and successful Russian invasion would be a helpful step towards China’s seemingly unswerving goal of conquering Taiwan, since such a fait accompli would only have stirred up apathy from the likes of Germany and France (as in 2014), resulting in strongly-worded communiqués rather than meaningful actions. Such a precedent, with the West divided and impotent, would have offered China a clear opportunity to strike its island neighbour in the near future, besides furthering China’s grander ambitions to break Western (and particularly U.S.) strategic dominance.
But then it all went a bit pear-shaped. I will quote at length from Patricia M. Kim, writing in Foreign Affairs:
The most damaging consequence of Russia’s aggression for China is the heightened global awareness and sense of urgency about Taiwan. Preventing Taiwan from becoming “the next Ukraine” has become a topic of grave concern, not just in Washington but among U.S. allies in Europe and Asia, many of whom once viewed Taiwan’s fate as only vaguely relevant, if at all, to their own security or a matter too politically sensitive to discuss. A record number of lawmakers from countries including Australia, France, Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States have visited Taipei in the last year to express support for the island. Fears about Chinese and Russian revisionism have strengthened ties between NATO and the United States’ Indo-Pacific allies, as well. Last year, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea participated in a NATO summit for the first time. Leaders there jointly recognised the danger of conflict in the Taiwan Strait and called for greater coordination among like-minded European and Asian partners.
There is far more at stake for China than just Taiwan, but I believe Taiwan is the key to understanding the more recent statements and actions of Xi Jinping and the Chinese Foreign Ministry. The problem for China is that its earlier statements on Ukraine have seriously undercut its own political and diplomatic stance towards Taiwan, in a manner that looks deeply hypocritical. China’s claim is that Taiwan is part of its own sovereign territory (the ‘One China’ principle), and in fact this claim has been partly upheld, albeit deliberately ambiguously, by the U.S. and others with a variety of interpretations since President Nixon’s momentous visit to China in 1972. Taiwan was expelled from the UN in 1971, and only 14 countries have full diplomatic relations with it – and even those are mostly micronations. Thus China’s claim has some merit, even if it ignores the principle of self-determination and the obvious point that Taiwan is a de facto sovereign nation.
However, by supporting the invasion of Ukraine on the same kind of spurious ‘security’ grounds that led to the similarly unjust invasion of Iraq in 2003, it undermines China’s own attempts to portray itself as a respectable and law-abiding member of the international community whose claims of sovereignty over Taiwan should be respected, and makes rather a mockery of its favourite line, that the West is hypocritical, the ‘rules-based international order’ is a sham, and that Western dominance should end – a line that goes down very well in some parts of the world.
It’s therefore not surprising to see a change in recent statements from China, in which it now emphasises the need to respect the sovereignty of all nations, above any of these ‘legitimate security concerns’. China’s proposed peace plan for Ukraine, presented at the recent Munich Security Conference by Wang Yi, lists respect for sovereignty as number one of a 12-point plan. That this relates to Taiwan as much as to Ukraine was made explicit by Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning last Thursday, in response to a question about Ukraine:
The U.S. keeps saying that territorial sovereignty must be respected, but on the Taiwan question, the U.S. has been walking on the edge and pushing the envelope.
In other words, business as usual: the U.S. is a hypocrite. (No mention of Tibet, of course.)
Another hint of a change in relations with Moscow might be in the unusual meeting between Putin and Wang Yi. Normally, foreign ministers meet other foreign ministers, and heads of government meet other heads of government, etc. But Putin chose to receive Wang Yi himself, after Wang’s meeting with Sergei Lavrov – which carries the suggestion of an unequal and needy relationship. Russia has since said that Xi plans to visit Moscow, but Beijing has notably not confirmed this (although much the same happened last year).
However, I don’t think any of that explains the sudden clampdown on commercial drone sales to Russia, which happened only recently, a long time (politically) after China’s peace plan was drafted and presented. Wang Yi presented the peace plan in Munich on the February 18th, and then the embarrassing news about Russian officials being in talks with the Chinese manufacturer Xian Bingo to buy 100 “kamikaze drones” came to light a week later. It’s conceivable that China wasn’t aware of these negotiations at the appropriate governmental level (or at all), had not given approval, and felt that the Russians involved (who may even have been ‘freelancing’) were a menace. Or perhaps they are just angry with Russia that they got found out. But for whatever reason, it seems this has prompted Beijing to issue a ukase to drone manufacturers to cease any dealings with Russia – while allowing some commercial drone sales to Ukraine, just to make a point.
That would be my interpretation, without knowing whatever information the U.S. seems to have on the matter. If so, it would be a zero-cost way for China to avoid any unfortunate conflict with the U.S., while at the same time asserting to Russia that it won’t get publicly dragged into what looks increasingly like an unwinnable war in Ukraine. As an optimist, I can perhaps hold out some hope that Xi will agree to Zelenskyy’s request for a meeting, but given China’s strategic alliance with Russia, the best I can take from this is that any fears I might have had of China directly supplying military equipment to Russia have been largely allayed.