Start / Analys / China’s rhetorical support for Russia since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine: A paradigm shift or old ideas brought to light?
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China has provided rhetorical support for Russia throughout the lead-up to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022 and since. This has included blaming the United States and NATO for the war while refusing to assign any blame to Russia, and accusing the West of “weaponizing” supply chains and “prolonging the conflict” by providing Ukraine with arms.  

While the official Russian and Chinese narratives about the war are nearly identical in many respects – in some cases, as a result of close coordination on the production and dissemination of propaganda – there are also nuances and differences between them. Characterizations of China’s rhetorical strategy as “parroting Russia’s talking points” or “embrac[ing] Russia’s propaganda” are simplifications that diminish China’s own agency. Moreover, suggestions that China has “ditched its own principles to back Russia” are only partially correct and appear to underestimate the continuity of China’s foreign policy doctrine. In fact, the core ideas and principles that underpin China’s rhetorical support for Russia have their roots in concepts that China formulated in the late 1990s.

China’s rhetorical support for Russia’s war against Ukraine

Analysts have pointed out how China’s rhetorical strategy pits two principles against each other. On the one hand, China has continued to express support for the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity under international law. At the same time, however, China has promoted the idea that security is “indivisible” (不可分割) and called for Russia’s legitimate security concerns (合理安全关切) to be taken seriously. By seemingly giving Ukraine’s sovereignty and Russia’s “legitimate security concerns” equal weight, China has in effect downplayed Russia’s violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. 

The invoking of legitimate security concerns to indirectly justify or diminish the use of force in international relations has been viewed as a relatively new Chinese position. Similarly, China’s adoption of the concept of “indivisible security” has been described as an example of China’s “willing[ness] to adopt Russian arguments” and as a “recent addition to China’s lexicon”. However, neither of these concepts is new to Chinese foreign policy discourse.  

Legitimate security concerns in China’s foreign policy discourse

China has been calling for accommodation of the legitimate security concerns of states since at least the early 2000s, often in situations where it has sought to position itself as an impartial mediator in international conflicts.  

A Google search for the term in Chinese carried out in May 2023 yields 93 official Chinese statements or documents containing the phrase since the turn of the millennium (Figure 1), most of which call for legitimate security concerns to be “settled” (解决), “respected” (尊重), “looked after” (照顾), “considered” (考虑) or “taken seriously” (得到重视). Among the countries with legitimate security concerns invoked by China are Russia, North Korea, Israel and Pakistan.  

When North Korea withdrew from the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003, China acknowledged the country’s legitimate security concerns. It did the same in 2009 when North Korea carried out the country’s second nuclear test. In 2013, China’s President Xi Jinping (习近平) presented a four-point proposal to resolve the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, which reiterated China’s support for “the establishment of an independent [Palestinian] state with full sovereignty” while calling for Israel’s “legitimate security concerns” and “right to exist” to be “fully respected”. The plan, which also called for an end to violence and the start of peace negotiations, has some similarities with China’s official position on the “Ukraine crisis”. Whereas China has consistently avoided specifying that it supports “Ukraine’s sovereignty”, instead calling for “the sovereignty of all states” to be respected, however, China’s support for Palestine’s sovereignty has been more vocal and explicit.  

China has also invoked its own legitimate security concerns in connection with deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. Moreover, China has on at least one occasion accused another country of using security concerns as a pretext to violate China’s territorial integrity. In 2017, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry stated that while “China is building roads on its own territory, India is illegally crossing the border to interfere and obstruct [Chinese activities] under the pretext of so-called security concerns”. 

From these cases, it is clear that legitimate security concerns are not exclusive to great powers. Furthermore, the idea that great powers have legitimate security concerns in their respective “spheres of influence” may be part of Chinese thinking about Russia, but in other cases the concept does not involve such ideas. In the case of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, Israel’s legitimate security concerns are tied to its right to exist. Although not explicitly mentioned, North Korea’s security concerns also seem to stem from perceived threats to its existence as a state, rather than a North Korean sphere of influence. Moreover, before Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the concept does not seem to have been used to justify the use of large-scale military force against another country. 

Figure 1. Number of Chinese official statements containing references to the legitimate security concerns (合理安全关切) of different countries, 2002–2022

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Note: Statements that applied the concept multiple times to a single country are only counted as one instance. The term “legitimate security and development concerns” (“合理安全和发展关切/安全和发展方面的合理关切”) are also counted, while the terms “security concerns” (“安全关切”) and “legitimate concerns” (“合理关切”) are not counted.

Source: Author’s research.

Indivisible security in China’s foreign policy discourse

Chinese official use of the term “indivisible security” also predates Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine by almost two decades. In 2003, China expressed support for the principle in a joint statement with Russia. In another joint statement from May 2014, shortly after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the two countries committed to “unswervingly defend the principle of indivisible security in international relations”. Within the BRICS grouping, of which both China and Russia are members with Brazil, India and South Africa, the principle of indivisible security has been highlighted in joint statements since at least 2014 

There are even more examples of China promoting the ideas behind the concept without explicitly mentioning the term. When Xi Jinping launched China’s New Asian Security Concept in May 2014, he stated that “security must be universal. We cannot just have the security of one or some countries while leaving the rest insecure, still less should one seek so-called absolute security at the expense of the security of others”. A nearly identical formulation was included in China’s white paper on Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation in 2017.  

The ideas that underpin the concept of indivisible security were being promoted by Chinese leaders long before they started talking about security as indivisible. Since the 1990s, they have criticized “Cold War mentality”, “bloc-based confrontation” and the pursuit of “absolute security” (绝对安全) at the expense of “common security” (共同安全). This does not rule out Russian influence on these Chinese ideas. Russia and China have since at least the late-1990s sought to coordinate their views on international security. In 1997, they declared their ambition to jointly establish “a new and universally applicable concept of security” which, among other things, argued for the abandonment of “bloc politics” and against the expansion of military blocks. 

So, what is “new” and does it matter?

While the concepts of legitimate security concerns and indivisible security are not new rhetorical constructs, they have been given an elevated status in Chinese foreign policy since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. “Taking the legitimate security concerns of all countries seriously” is listed as one of six “core ideas and principles” in China’s Global Security Initiative concept paper, published in February 2023. The term was also included in China’s 12-point proposal for a “political settlement of the Ukraine crisis” published on the anniversary of the Russian invasion. 

The possible long-term consequences of elevation of the concept of legitimate security concerns for China’s views on security and the legitimate use of force in international relations are as yet unclear. However, the fact that the concept has been given a central place in the above-mentioned documents seems at least to create the conditions for China to indirectly justify or diminish violations of states’ sovereignty with reference to this principle in the future. 

About the Author

Patrik Andersson

Patrik Andersson


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