Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a sovereign country, clearly violates “noninterference.” As one of the PRC’s core foreign policy principles, Chinese officials champion the concept abroad, calling it “a magic weapon” for developing countries. This principle should—in theory—prompt Beijing to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Not only have Chinese officials declined to condemn Putin, but Chinese state media began constructing a convoluted narrative weeks before Russia's invasion to explain away the applicability of noninterference to the crisis in Ukraine. In Beijing’s narrative, “noninterference” is ostensibly less relevant to Ukraine because of Russia’s “legitimate security concerns.” In this way, Beijing strategically frames the crisis less as one of Russia violating noninterference, and more of Russia securing a favorable environment for pursuing its national interests.
Many have argued that China is in a tough spot because tacitly endorsing Russia’s invasion before it invaded now boxes Beijing into supporting behavior adverse to its stated foreign policy principles. Instead of reconciling this contradiction, Beijing is seeking to downplay the extent to which the core principle of noninterference is relevant to the situation. This approach allows Beijing to simultaneously pursue its interest of maintaining its relationship with Russia while continuing to champion itself as a defender of noninterference.
Beijing’s Noninterference Narrative
“Noninterference” has been a crucial tenet of the PRC’s foreign policy since 1955, when it was enshrined in the communiqué of the Asian-African Conference held in Bandung, Indonesia. Originally a broad principle borne out of South-South cooperation against the backdrop of the Cold War, noninterference is critical to Beijing’s current foreign policy in two ways. First, it provides a rhetorical shield against criticism of core issues related to Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Hong Kong—all of which Beijing considers its internal affairs. Second, it allows the PRC to distinguish itself from the United States and other great powers who have unilaterally intervened in the domestic affairs of other countries. While the PRC has violated its own principle of noninterference, Beijing continues to employ the principle to pursue its objectives. In the current crisis, Beijing has constructed a narrative in which China prefers negotiation and peace, but understands why Russia behaved it way it did, and the crisis is inevitably the fault of the United States by provoking Russia via NATO expansionism. Even though Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has explicitly stated the PRC advocates for “safeguarding the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries,” and that this is equally applicable to Ukraine, none of China’s entreaties to find a “peaceful settlement” via diplomacy are, in its perspective, at odds with its fundamental foreign policy principles or sympathy for Russia’s interests and goals.
Since January, Chinese media has reported on the United States “hyping” the situation, claimed the United States has caused the crisis, publicly undermined U.S. intelligence that predicted Russia’s invasion, and amplified and legitimized Putin’s grievances towards Ukraine. In late January, reports warned of the United States’ deliberately inciting hysteria over a potential non-issue. A day before Russia’s invasion, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying directly called the United States the “culprit” of tensions. Then, when Russia invaded, Chinese media portrayed Russia’s so-called “special military operations” as a response to a situation inherently caused by the United States and NATO. As the war continues, the Russian embassy in Beijing continues to malign the Ukrainian government as “neo-nazis” on popular Chinese social media sites. To date, Chinese media has not criticized Russia directly, and has instead amplified Putin’s propaganda. While Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has attempted to distance Beijing from Moscow by calling for “restraint,” and has extended official sympathy to Ukrainian citizens, he carefully withheld that sympathy from Ukraine’s political position or objectives. On March 7, he reiterated that the China-Russia relationship remains "rock solid."
As such, China is balancing its foreign policy principles and pro-Russia stance by explicitly stating that Ukraine’s sovereignty should indeed be respected, while refraining from stating that Russia has violated it. Beijing’s cost-benefit analysis in tacitly supporting Russia is less about consistency in its foreign policy principles and the subsequent cost to its reputation, and more about the material consequences of other countries perceiving it as culpable for Russian behavior. Those consequences could include secondary sanctions, disruptions to global energy markets, a continued souring of U.S.-China relations, and more importantly the potential hardening of EU policy towards China.
As others have noted, Beijing’s long-term bet is on its enduring partnership with Moscow. Xi and Putin signed a joint statement only three weeks before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine indicating both sides see each other as their most advantageous long-term strategic partners. While Beijing has historically supported Russian adventurism—it helped blunt the effects of sanctions after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and supported Russia’s intervention in Kazakhstan in January—the current war is not in Beijing’s interest. Beijing has supported the development of ties with Ukraine as part of the Belt and Road Initiative. Beijing would also like to keep international attention on the ongoing Afghanistan crisis, where it seeks to portray itself as a defender of humanitarianism.
Nonetheless, Beijing does not want to see the crisis in Ukraine erupt into a prolonged, multi-state war whose economic and political reverberations resound globally. Now as the war progresses and Beijing stresses the need for a diplomatic solution, it can lean on the narrative foundation it has built since January, in which the United States is both the underlying cause for the crisis via NATO “expansionism,” and the immediate trigger by "forcing" Russia into a corner and seeking “chaos.”
In Beijing’s risk calculus, supporting Putin’s invasion of Ukraine—either tacitly or explicitly—does not immediately damage its self-declared status as a global champion of noninterference, but does invite the risk of negative consequences from the escalation of conflict. By publicly promoting a diplomatic solution while refraining from directly challenging or condemning Putin’s invasion, Beijing believes it can maintain its partnerships and, later, still uphold its principle of noninterference if needed.