China has sought to show the world there is an alternative to the US-led global order as it launched a “diplomatic game of narratives” with its more active approach to the war in Ukraine.
Experts say Beijing is moving to curry favour with countries in the global south that have mostly stayed out of Europe’s war, and particularly with autocratic states in its latest “charm offensive”.
Belarus and Hungary – both close Kremlin allies – as well as Central Asian countries are big assets for China in its attempt to fight the spread of democratisation, argued Temur Umarov, fellow at the Washington-based international affairs think-tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
“It’s about China’s attempt to create some kind of idea that international order can be different, this model of economic prosperity without democracy,” he said.
China has positioned itself as a neutral actor in the Ukraine conflict, but last week it stepped up its role by publishing a 12-point proposal that called for a ceasefire and for Western sanctions against Russia to end.
But China’s stance on the Ukraine war has not changed, and that is evident in the content of its proposal that is more generic than specific. It forms “part of a broader charm-offensive aimed at reviving Beijing’s standing in international affairs”, said Alicja Bachulska, policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
China has used the proposal to beat off accusations that it is considering arming Russia, and the subsequent pushback from Western countries could be viewed by some as an attempt to keep their hegemony in the world.
“Really, it’s just a diplomatic game of narratives,” said Mr Umarov.
The West has largely dismissed China’s attempts to foster peace, with US department of state spokesperson Ned Price commenting on Monday that China has “very clearly” taken Russia’s side by providing diplomatic, political and economic assistance.
Analysts argue that Beijing has no interest in the Ukraine war, but it’s tacit support for Moscow is important – Russia’s defeat would prove a real challenge to Xi Jinping’s narrative of a West in decline.
“Today, not a single issue in the world can be resolved without China,” Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko – a staunch ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin – said ahead of his visit to Beijing on Tuesday.
His remarks came a day after Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has maintained good relations with Mr Putin, said his country supports China’s peace plan.
Through the Ukraine conflict, China is also gauging how the West, especially the US, could react to its own aggressions.
Deteriorating US-China tensions have been further strained in recent weeks after the American military shot down what it says was a Chinese spy balloon. China continues to insist the balloon was a civilian research vessel that was accidentally blown off course, calling the US response an overreaction.
The row is likely to boil over to the G20 meeting of foreign ministers that begins on Wednesday, where officials have previously wrangled over condemning Russia over the war.
From Beijing’s point of view a conflict with Washington is “inevitable”, Mr Umarov said, and so China will want to delay it to work on self-sufficiency away from the US economy.
The plan is working so far. China has become a beneficiary of the Ukraine war – it has been afforded huge energy discounts by Moscow and the billions of dollars Washington is investing in military aid to Ukraine is not going towards bolstering its Pacific forces.
Anything that could distract the US from its stand-off with China “would be good” for Beijing, said Mr Umarov.
It is possible that the US reaction to China’s implicit support for Russia could inform Chinese plans for aggression against its neighbours, including Taiwan.
“It is highly likely that the Chinese government is stimulating a response from the United States and Nato to gauge their reaction to such moves,” Mick Ryan, former Australian Army major general, wrote in his analysis on China for ABC News.
“And while these are different contingencies, China wants to have some level of confidence in how the West might respond in the wake of any future aggression, including a move on Taiwan.”