China Has Ditched Its Own Principles to Back Russia

Foreign Policy, 08.04.2022
Julian Ku, profesor de Derecho (Hofstra University-New York)

China always opposes the use of force in international relations”. This boilerplate statement, frequently repeated by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, reflects Beijing’s long-standing, publicly stated opposition to the use of military force outside the limitations imposed by Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter. It is a fundamental principle of its approach to international law and a significant feature of its self-portrayal as neutral, peaceful state in contrast to the United States. Yet China, which has repeatedly refused to criticize Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, appears to have abandoned its long-standing legal and diplomatic position.

Beijing’s silence on Ukraine may represent a temporary accommodation of its most important geopolitical ally, but it could also represent a meaningful shift in the Chinese government’s views on the propriety of the use of force. Either way, China’s silence as Russia blatantly violates one of its most cherished principles of international law deserves both criticism and careful attention if it also represents a shift toward a more aggressive and dangerous Chinese foreign policy.

Since its admission into the United Nations in 1971, China has emerged as a reliable defender of the centrality of the world body and the U.N. Charter to the conduct of international relations. In a revealing 2005 position paper on proposals for U.N. reform, China lauded the United Nations’ “indispensable role in international affairs”. It made such statements even as it rejected calls at the time to endorse a “Responsibility to Protect” principle that would allow the use of force to prevent humanitarian atrocities. The U.N. Security Council, China argued at that time, “is the only body that can decide the use of force”.

This position is consistent with both prior and subsequent Chinese government statements. For instance, even before it joined the U.N. but after it had diplomatically split with the Soviet Union, China publicly condemned the Soviet Union’s use of force in Czechoslovakia in 1968. And unlike its current silence on Russia, the Chinese foreign ministry didn’t hesitate to call the U.S. military action in Panama a “military invasion” that “constitutes an infringement against a sovereign state of the third world and violates the norms of international law and the aims and purposes of the United Nations Charter”. This condemnation was made even though China and Panama had no diplomatic relations at that time, with Panama instead recognizing Taiwan.

A decade later, the Chinese government aggressively opposed NATO’s military intervention against Yugoslavia during the Kosovo crisis and joined only Russia and Namibia in supporting a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have condemned NATO’s use of force. As China’s U.N. ambassador declared months earlier, NATO’s use of force “violated the purposes, principles, and relevant provisions of the United Nations Charter, as well as international law and widely acknowledged norms governing relations between states”.

In light of its position on NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, it is not surprising that China also emerged as a fierce opponent of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Kong Quan denounced the attack as going “around the U.N. Security Council, which constitutes a violation of the U.N. Charter and basic norms of international law”.

In the years since the Iraq War, China has not been shy about condemning the use of force, especially in Syria. Not only did it condemn the 2018 U.S. airstrikes in response to the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime as violating international law; it also condemned the Israeli and Turkish military strikes in 2017 and 2019, respectively, in the same conflict. Most recently, in 2020, the Chinese government opposed the U.S. targeted strike that killed Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani. As the Chinese foreign ministry reiterated in its now standard criticism: “China has always opposed the use of force in international relations”.

To be sure, China did not condemn Russia’s use of force in either Georgia or Crimea and eastern Ukraine. But those cases differ from Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine because the Kremlin cloaked those interventions as civil conflicts that did not rise to the level of a “use of force in international relations”. Russian military force was then later justified with the “consent” of the new governments. This narrative of civil conflict, and then consent by the prevailing government, also allowed China to accept Russia’s military intervention at the behest of the Assad regime in Syria.

Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine did not claim either the consent of the Ukrainian government or that its forces were simply supporting Ukrainian rebels in an internal conflict. Rather, Russia’s invasion is the largest use of force by one sovereign state against another since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. China’s refusal to recognize, much less condemn, Russia’s openly illegal use of force against Ukraine is therefore remarkable. Chinese government spokespeople have neither repeated their well-worn “China opposes the use of force” boilerplate statement nor have they even acknowledged that Russia has invaded Ukraine.

Despite numerous opportunities to do so, Chinese spokespeople have only acknowledged that there is a conflict in Ukraine and called on “all sides” to exercise restraint. For example, during a Feb. 25 press briefing, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson was asked: “Does China consider Russia’s action an invasion now? And if not, then what does China think the nature of this conflict actually is?” In response, the spokesperson dodged the question as to whether Russia has invaded Ukraine and simply repeated that “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries should be respected and upheld. The purposes and principles of the U.N. Charter should also be jointly upheld”.

This statement somehow managed to avoid addressing whether Russia’s use of force is “upholding” the charter. China has maintained this silence on the question of the use of force and has abstained from both U.N. Security Council and General Assembly resolutions that condemned Russia’s use of force. The only party that China is willing to condemn in the war has actually not used any military force at all: NATO. Nonetheless, China has repeatedly blamed the bloc for causing the war by expanding eastward despite Russia’s security concerns.

There are at least two possible explanations for China’s apparent about-face on its prior opposition to the “use of force in international relations” with respect to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Both are troubling for U.S. policymakers concerned about China’s potential threat to United States and allied interests.

First, the most obvious explanation for Beijing’s silence on the use of force against Ukraine is that China’s need to support its strategic partnership with Russia is more important than any commitment it has to an abstract principle of international law. Its willingness to accept blatant large-scale use of military force against a sovereign state goes far beyond its tacit acceptance of Russia’s actions in Georgia and Crimea. This is hardly shocking, nor are inconsistent views on the legality of the use of force unique to China.

But even the United States, which has wrestled most publicly with the legality of its own use of force, has typically offered justifications for the international legality of its actions under either a capacious view of self-defense or the need to prevent a humanitarian atrocity. China has simply refused to offer any legal explanation at all for its non-position on Russia’s obviously illegal use of force. The much-scrutinized joint statement between Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping actually condemned “[s]ome actors” that “continue to advocate unilateral approaches to addressing international issues and resort to force” (emphasis added). Thus, not only is Russia resorting to “force” in a very unilateral way, but China has decided that it will not condemn Russia for undermining a principle both countries endorsed within the past two months.

There is a second, and more troubling, explanation for China’s silence on the legality of the use of force. China’s adherence to such a legal principle may have been more attractive when it was a negligible military power outside its own borders. But while China is not yet the equal of the United States in military terms, it has growing geopolitical ambitions within Asia as well as around the world. Not only is China embroiled in potentially violent border disputes with almost all of its geographic neighbors, including Japan, Vietnam, the Philippines, and India, but it has established or is considering military presences in the Middle East (Djibouti) and in regions as far-flung as the Atlantic and the South Pacific.

A rising global military power might take a less restrictive view of the U.N. Charter’s limitations on the use of force, as, indeed, the United States has appeared to do in its recent history when it used force in the former Yugoslavia and Syria without any widely accepted international law justification. But a China that is not even notionally committed to the U.N. Charter’s limitations on the use of force is much more of a threat than one that is simply giving its strategic partner Russia a hypocritical pass.

Either way, the United States and its allies should demand China justify its silence on the legality of Russia’s use of force against Ukraine. While the United States may, in the eyes of many international lawyers, have violated this same rule many times before, it is still important to force China to spell out whether it is likely to disregard this prohibition in the future with respect to its own interests. Countries otherwise sympathetic to China’s professed commitment to the U.N. Charter (such as in Europe, Africa, or Southeast Asia) will be put on notice of Beijing’s hypocrisy or, worse, its potential abandonment of this principle.

China is either so committed to Russia that it will abandon a core principle of the U.N. Charter it once valorized—or it sees itself as a nation that does not need to be bound by such rules. Neither option is attractive, and both require us to rethink the nature of China’s position in the global order and the viability of such principles as the prohibition on the use of force in that order.

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