On March 2nd 2022, the United Nations General Assembly voted for a resolution demanding Russia immediately end its military operations in Ukraine, giving the impression that Moscow was isolated: only four countries — together with Moscow — voted against (Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, and Syria). Nonetheless, this initial impression had to be nuanced a month later. On April 7th 2022, while 93 countries voted to suspend the Russian Federation’s membership rights at the UN Human Rights Council, a significant number (24, including China) voted against or opted to abstain (58). Undoubtedly, the world is currently divided on how to handle Russia following the invasion of Ukraine: a significant number of governments are opposed — or unwilling — to impose sanctions on Moscow or exclude it from multilateral institutions. Similarly, many appear uncomfortable with the Kremlin’s “isolation” or making President Vladimir Putin a “paria” in the international community – as suggested by President Joe Biden in a February 24th speech in reaction to the invasion of Ukraine. More than uncomfortable, China is wholly opposed to such proposals and has publicly voiced its support for Russia’s “business as usual” participation in international affairs.
In March 2022, Beijing insisted Moscow could not be expelled from the G20 to be held in Indonesia in November in its capacity as an “important member” of the group. Since then, the summit’s organisation has become a challenging task for Jakarta, which has ultimately resorted to inviting both Russia and Ukraine. The invitation and confirmation process is still ongoing [at the time of writing] and is likely to continue to stand on shaky ground for the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, the BRICS Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, chaired by China and hosted online in mid-May, included the participation of Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and Russia will most likely continue to be represented as usual to future BRICS meetings – the exclusion of the country has never been on the agenda. At the 2022 edition of the Boao Forum for Asia, organised online by Beijing at the end of April, Xi Jinping reiterated his opposition to “unilateral sanctions”, referring to embargos against the Kremlin.
Well before the war, China had already accelerated its diplomatic activism at the UN in various ways, including by co-founding or launching different “groups of friends”: the Group of friends in Defense of the Charter of the United Nations in March 2021, the Group of friends on the Safety and Security of United Nations Peacekeepers in April 2021, and the Group of friends of Global Development Initiative in January 2022. They all include Russia, deemed by China as a critical partner in restructuring global governance in a post-Western direction. Beijing and Moscow fully converge when it comes to NATO, which they both blame for the war in Ukraine, or to the ‘US-led’ Indo-Pacific strategy, which China recently described as “an Indo-Pacific version of NATO” with “perverse actions” and that is “doom to fail” (see State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Annual MFA Press conference, March 7th). Xi Jinping continues to promote, along the same line as Vladimir Putin, the “indivisible security” concept, which had been mentioned by both sides well before the war, and now calls for a new “Global Security Initiative” (see Boao Forum, April 21st), which opposes “the wanton use of unilateral sanctions” (see MFA spokesperson Wang Wenbin, April 21st press conference) among other actions.
Although this “Global Security Initiative” remains purposely vague in its official description, it is likely to become the name of a new group of friends appearing on the UN stage in the coming months and frame other informal Chinese diplomacy actions to “enlarge its circle of friends”. This expression, repeatedly used by Xi Jinping on several occasions over the last five years, refers to China’s ambitious coalition-building strategy. The aim is to gather the highest possible number of countries around Beijing and marginalise the US and its allies as much as possible in multilateral settings.
Albeit far-fetched for the time being, China’s ambition and methodology in coalition-building ought not to be underestimated. On some occasions over the last two years, Beijing has been able to win by numbers: for instance, in June 2021, a group of over 40 countries led by Canada signed a joint statement (including Australia, Britain, France, Germany, Japan, and the US, among others) urging China to allow the UN Human Rights Chief’s immediate access to Xinjiang to investigate reports that over a million people had been unlawfully detained there; for its part, Beijing was prompt in rallying over 60 countries, including Moscow, to sign an opposed joint statement.
The polarisation of the UN system and other multilateral settings is not a new process. It has accelerated in light of China’s strategy to restructure global governance under Hu Jintao (2002-2012) and consolidated as countries’ strategies to build coalitions around Xi Jinping. All this is occurring against prolonged Sino tensions and benefits from the US’ partial disinvestment in multilateralism during the Trump administration. In addition to the China-Russia rapprochement’s depth over the past eight years, these strategies should be fully considered when assessing the potential to limit Russia’s international status. China will continue to deploy intense diplomatic activism to support its coalition-building strategy and, as part of this strategy, Russia’s presence in multilateral frameworks whenever possible.