Beijing is hardly a responsible stakeholder
China has attempted to thread a diplomatic needle between maintaining its close ties with Russia and at least nominally supporting an end to the war in Ukraine. Having issued with Vladimir Putin a major manifesto on Feb. 4 outlining cooperation with Moscow that has “no limits,” Chinese President Xi Jinping is in no position to repudiate his Russian counterpart. Nevertheless, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has had a destabilizing effect on commodity prices worldwide, notably petroleum and food products, cannot be to Beijing’s liking.
After all, not only does China have a major stake in international trade, but Xi personally wants to project an image of stability in the run-up to the Sept. 20 Communist Party National Congress, where he anticipates being crowned president for life. One might expect Xi to seek a quick end to the war. To that end, China has called for the parties to negotiate its termination as soon as possible.
China’s stated desire to see an end to the war rings rather hollow, however. To begin with, given their recent reiteration of their partnership, Xi cannot afford to see Putin defeated, or even humiliated by Ukraine’s resilience. For that reason, although making noises about offering its “good offices” to help bring about a Russo-Ukrainian ceasefire, Beijing has refused to press Putin to agree to one.
China’s hypocrisy does not end there. Chinese spokesmen make much of Beijing’s humanitarian support for Ukraine. Indeed, on March 21, Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin announced that his government was making a second contribution of humanitarian aid to Ukraine. This contribution, said Wang, was double Beijing’s previous donation to assist the millions of displaced and otherwise traumatized Ukrainians. How sizable is China’s latest contribution? It will amount to ten million Yuan, equivalent to all of $1.56 million. Evidently, this paltry sum is all that the world’s second largest economy can afford to part with.
It is worth comparing China’s “generosity” toward Ukraine with that of the United States and other nations. Of the massive $13.6 billion aid package that the Congress recently enacted for the embattled nation, $2.65 billion will provide emergency food assistance, health care, and urgent support for vulnerable populations and communities inside Ukraine and in the region. Another $1.4 billion will go toward humanitarian support for refugee outflows from Ukraine. A further $647 million is being allocated to the Economic Support Fund to flexibly respond to either Ukrainian macroeconomic needs, continuity of government efforts such as energy and cyber security, or needs in neighboring countries. And $100 million will be allocated to Food for Peace grants for food assistance to Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees. These four programs alone amount to nearly 3,000 times the size of Beijing’s contribution toward easing Ukraine’s humanitarian crisis.
Other smaller economies than those of the United States are contributing significant sums as well, relative to their respective gross domestic products. Whether these amounts are large or small in absolute terms, almost all stand in sharp contrast with China’s $1.56 million. For example, Canada, with one-eighth China’s GDP, has committed up to U.S. $90 million. Norway, with a GDP that is one-thirty-fifth of China’s, is contributing U.S. $220 million. The Czech Republic, whose GDP nearly one-sixtieth that of China, has committed an amount nearly equal to Canada’s. Among the world’s wealthier states, France has allocated over $335 million, in addition to food and medical supplies and equipment; Britain has committed $300 million, together with rations, generators and medical equipment; and Japan, as distant as it is from the war zone, has committed $200 million, plus tents, winter clothing, food and other items.
The number of states donating either money or supplies of various kinds is long, and continues to grow. China is an outlier on this list; it is noteworthy only for its miserliness in the face of human misery. On the other hand, it is arguable that Beijing’s indifference to the tragedy that has befallen the people of Ukraine is of a piece with its persecution of the Uyghurs and its crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong.
For many years, policymakers in the United States and in Europe hoped that China would develop into a “responsible stakeholder” on the world stage. It may be a stakeholder, but it is hardly a responsible one.
Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.