Questions surrounding the foreign policy strategy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are plentiful, especially when a real-world problem of Chinese foreign policy response beyond slogans and keywords of PRC elites arises - most recently, China’s position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Consequently, critics expect the China watcher community to uncover a masterplan, an overarching strategy, that China is careful not to fully reveal but that nevertheless could be pieced together through histories, speeches, policies, initiatives, and visuals, if only one were sufficiently knowledgeable and meticulous to find and contextualise the clues.

Tim Rühlig’s latest book challenges the very existence of an explicable, translatable, and, therefore, predictable Chinese foreign policy. ‘The lack of academic consensus on how to describe China’s approach to the rules and institutions underlying the international order’, he writes, ‘is the result not primarily of theoretical differences, but of contradictory Chinese foreign policy. This book summarizes and explains these contradictions and sets out their implications for the future international order.’1 Such built-in contradictions are in fact a major roadblock to a popular international attempt to buy into a ‘Beijing consensus’. With such an inconsistent track record from Beijing, other countries just don’t know what they are getting themselves into. The book features an unpacking of the Chinese Party-State, the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ in Hong Kong, approaches to welfare, and WTO policy, among other topics.

This review essay, however, will focus on one particular contradiction scrutinised in Rühlig’s work: that of China’s approach to security and the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) policy. I shall then apply these conclusions to China’s approach to Russia’s war in Ukraine. It suggests that China’s position on Russia’s R2P argument or indeed to the whole of Russia’s war in Ukraine is neither neutral nor ‘middle ground’. Actually, it is a series of contradictory statements and actions that are allowed to coexist and overlap in PRC messaging, adding up to support that falls just short of casting itself squarely in the Russian worldview. In other words, for China, it is not about avoiding venturing into the Russian camp. Rather, it is about making it home safely before nightfall. China has no problem lending a hand to the Russian position. Where China draws the line is at setting up camp and moving into it.

Keywords - China, Russia, Ukraine, ambiguity, responsibility to protect, strategic communications, strategic communications, strategic communication

About the Author: Dr Una Aleksandra Bērziņa-Čerenkova is Head of the Political Science PhD Programme and China Studies Centre at Rīga Stradiņš University, Head of the Asia Programme at the Latvian Institute of International Affairs, a member of CHERN, and the European Think-tank Network on China (ETNC). She has held fellowships at Fudan University and Stanford University, and is affiliated with King’s College London and MERICS. She is the author of Perfect Imbalance: China and Russia, published by World Scientific in 2022.