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An Insider’s Perspective on China’s Strategy in Ukraine

13 minute read
Maçães was Portugal's Secretary of State for European Affairs and is currently a consultant at Flint Global. He is the author of The Dawn of Eurasia and, most recently, Geopolitics for the End Time

China is everywhere in global politics. China is “ubiquitous,” a retired Senior Colonel Zhou Bo of China’s PLA told me in a recent conversation. On March 10, in an agreement brokered by Beijing, Iran and Saudi Arabia agreed to normalize relations, after seven years of bitter rivalry in a deal that sidelined the U.S. Earlier, on February 24, China put forward a 12-point proposal for peace in Ukraine. On March 20, President Xi Jinping arrived in Moscow, where he discussed the situation in Ukraine with Vladimir Putin. A phone call with Ukraine’s President Zelensky is expected soon, perhaps this week.

In our interview, Senior Colonel Zhou Bo spoke with refreshing candor about what the “watershed moment” means for China and the world. “China is entering the ocean,” he stressed, using a metaphor that I suspect will soon become common. I was particularly interested in his statements on how Russia’s invasion has harmed significant Chinese interests. Dramatically, he also said that “Russia cannot win this war.” It is clear that in Beijing’s view the conflict in Ukraine will continue, that the West has no plan to solve it, and that China expects its role as mediator will only grow. For Beijing, the war in Ukraine is a trigger for new security arrangements in Europe that will have to be made before peace returns.

Senior Colonel Zhou Bo served in different posts in Guangzhou Air Force Regional Command. From 1993 he worked successively as staff officer, Deputy Director General of West Asia and Africa Bureau and then Deputy Director General of General Planning Bureau of the Foreign Affairs Office of the Ministry of National Defense of China. His last position in the Ministry of National Defense was as Director of the Centre for Security Cooperation in the Office for International Military Cooperation, with responsibilities for multilateral cooperation. He retired from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at the end of 2019 and is now a senior fellow of Center for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University in Beijing. He speaks as a PLA delegate at the Shangri-La Dialogue and the Munich Security conference.

Do you think Russia made a strategic mistake invading Ukraine? Do you think Russia is weaker now than before the invasion?

I don’t believe so far Russia has regretted this war, but I think they would regret the way they fought the war. They did not fight it well, especially at the beginning when they dispersed their armed forces in attacking from too many directions. The communications and logistical supply were poor; the command chain would start from Moscow, but there was no front commander post. Putting all this together, it was not as good as they wished. But about the war itself it is not as straightforward, because for Putin, this involves the existence of Russia itself.

Let me ask you about the Chinese position. It seems difficult for me to say that China has been neutral. Chinese officials are critical of the Ukrainian right of self-defence, they are critical of the American role, but I have yet to see a critical word about the invasion itself…

I think China has been neutral and now a more constructive neutrality is developed because of the 12-point peace plan we proposed. From day one China has made it clear sovereignty must be respected and this is a gentle suggestion that the war is in violation of sovereignty. This kind of suggestion cannot be misunderstood. Because of China’s relations with Russia, there is a difference in ways that China might provide suggestions or even criticisms, but China’s clear-cut position on this issue should not be misunderstood. China’s proposal on peace in Ukraine is a big step forward. The success on mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia will encourage China to make more proposals, but the challenge is always to find road maps. With reform and opening up, as Deng Xiaoping said, China was trying to get across the river by feeling the stones on the riverbed, but now China is entering the ocean.

What do you mean by the “ocean” in this context?

You can’t feel the seabed. These are uncharted waters, but there is no turning back. We are talking about Global China. When Boris Johnson talked about Global Britain, it was probably more rhetorical. But Global China is definitely real. China is ubiquitous. China’s influence is everywhere. The PLA’s operations overseas are carefully chosen to be humanitarian in nature, but as your strength grows, people have higher expectations for you. We are talking about the world. This is the ocean we are wading in.

Let me insist on whether China has been neutral. Why has China refused to call the war a war? Should a superpower be afraid to call things by their names?

China does have some sympathy with Russia on how this war came about because of NATO expansion, despite NATO’s promises on no expansion from time to time. When people talk about a murder, the murder is only a result, but it has causes. China understands why Russia is resentful. When China stresses sovereignty must be respected, it also tries to look at it from a more comprehensive perspective. Countries like South Africa, Brazil, or India are taking similar positions like China on this.

Why has President Xi not talked to President Zelensky? I asked Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kuleba last week and he was perplexed. A neutral country has to speak to both sides.

Because this situation is so complicated. Russia is our largest neighbour, and Ukraine is an important trade partner, it is difficult for China to make a choice. Besides, the all-out support in the West for Ukraine makes things more complicated. There is no doubt that China wants to see a ceasefire because China’s interests were damaged in Europe. Because of China’s neutrality, China’s relations with Western capitals have soured. This is ludicrous because China has nothing to do with this war. China was not informed, China was not involved, but now people simply want China to be involved and pick a side.

Let’s turn to China’s role. What should we expect from President Xi’s visit to Moscow and a possible phone call with President Zelensky?

Chinese and Russian leaders have regular exchanges of visits since late 1990s on alternative basis. Last year it was Russia’s turn, so this year it is China’s turn. I am sure China’s peace plan will be discussed. This is a watershed. There is no doubt about that. But a peace proposal from a third party only works when both sides feel they cannot fight anymore. That is the best time to jump in. Currently neither side is interested in stopping the fighting. Washington is not interested in a ceasefire either.

Will China supply weapons to Russia?

I am totally confused why you ask this question. It does not make any sense to me that China, which has not provided weapons to Russia since the outbreak of the war, would change its mind, especially at a time when they have actually announced a peace plan. Why would Antony Blinken say that? By saying it, Blinken was actually giving a pre-emptive warning because China providing military support would be the worst fear of the U.S. But it’s totally impossible.

You said China and Russia have a close relationship. If Russia was on the brink of being defeated then supplying weapons might make sense?

No. Your scenario is impossible. Russia cannot win this war, but Russia won’t lose this war either. Because of Russia’s size, because of its strength including its largest nuclear arsenal in the world and because Russia cannot afford to withdraw. And because there might even be changes in the West on supporting Ukraine. Will support continue if it turns out to be a war of attrition?

In Samarkand in September last year, strangely, Putin said he understood China’s reservations and questions about the invasion. What did he mean?

I think he understands this war doesn’t serve China’s interests. In your interview with Sergei Karaganov for the New Statesman, he said in this war, the biggest victor was China. That is impossible because China’s relationship with Europe has soured simply because China has refused to take sides. China’s relations with Europe are critically important, of course. Besides, China’s Belt and Road now is subject to readjustments. Some China’s companies have stopped doing business with Russia for fear of American sanctions. I believe Putin knows that and that this explains his words.

Read More: Xi Jinping’s Visit to Moscow Isn’t Really About Ukraine

But then China is incredibly generous. Russia has created all these problems and China has not responded. How to explain this generosity of the Chinese spirit?

Because we are neighbours, this relationship needs to be first looked at in bilateral terms. Then it becomes a regional or global issue. China has made some contributions. First, China did not throw wood into the fire. People don’t think about this, but imagine China took Russia’s side? That would be the dawn of WW3. Second, China made it very clear nuclear weapons cannot be used. These were China’s contributions. In the days to come there will be more.

If there is a peace agreement, what are the foundations for such an agreement. Does it involve Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine or does it include territorial negotiations and concessions?

Actually we had a conversations in the Valdai Club this afternoon and I asked the same question. The problem is how these two countries can find a solution. Right now, for both of them, the solution is total victory. So the war will simply last. China stands ready when it can help, but only these countries can solve the issue, they have to come to a ceasefire first. For Russia, it at least needs some victory. If eventually Russia could only put Crimea that it occupied in 2014 under control, why does Putin need to launch the war at all? Zelensky said victory is inevitable if allies keep their promise. That means he does have concerns that the allies may not keep their promise, especially if this war turns out to be a war of attrition. The U.S. has already made it clear that it doesn’t want a ceasefire asserting that a ceasefire now actually ratifies Russia’s gains on the ground.

Is it a potential embarrassment that President Xi is visiting Moscow so soon after Putin is indicted for war crimes by an international court?

I don’t think so. The issuance of the arrest warrant by the ICC is at best symbolic. The ICC only has jurisdiction in countries that have signed the Rome Statute, but Russia is not a signatory, nor is China, India, or the U.S. Therefore, the ICC cannot enforce the warrant unless Putin travels to a state prepared to arrest him. The arrest warrant serves no purpose than to make Putin more defiant, as was seen in his sudden visit to Mariupol after the announcement. If peace is what we aspire to, the warrant simply makes it more difficult to achieve.

Was China informed about the invasion?

Our former ambassador to the U.S., now foreign minister Qin Gang has written in the Washington Post that China was not informed. People have their own sources too to prove that, so the allegation is gone.

What are the lessons and consequences for the Taiwan question?

This is a ridiculous question. Why are the two issues related? There is no sovereignty issue in the case of Taiwan. And why would a war in Europe have consequences for Taiwan?

Let’s turn to China’s recent initiative in the Middle East. Does the normalization of relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia under Chinese mediation signal the end of American hegemony in the region?

No. The American presence in the region is not as strong as before, but the U.S. will not go away. But on this issue China is doing what the U.S. cannot do. Why? Because the U.S. doesn’t even have diplomatic relations with Iran. It cannot become a mediator between the two sides. The U.S. has allies in the region. It has to adopt double standards. Therefore, China can do a better job, but this is not an attempt to replace the U.S.

China has accused the U.S. of trying to suppress it, but it relies on the U.S. to secure vital supply lanes for oil and trade. Is that a contradiction? Does the initiative signal a different approach with China becoming self-reliant on security?

China is concerned about the security of sea lanes in the Indian Ocean, to the extent it has established a logistical base in Djibouti. But is it correct to argue that U.S. is providing public security goods? Even in the Cold War sea lanes were kept open.

If there were a war between Saudi and Iran, this would damage China’s interests, both economic interests and energy security, profoundly. So China needs to prevent a war and that may explain its new role.

You are correct. China depends on energy imports from the Middle East, which make up 40-50% of Chinese energy imports. We are trying to diversify, but that is the situation for now… At the same time, China’s activity in the Middle East now comprises almost everything, from building infrastructure to launching satellites to energy imports, therefore its stake on peace and stability in the Middle East has become higher. This is the first time China becomes directly involved in regional security. The biggest question of the 21st century is, if China’s rise is inevitable, will China create a better world? My answer is, at least it can make a safer world. At least it will make much less harm than the U.S.

This interview has been edited and condensed

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