China pushing message it is more neutral and better suited than US to lead global security, researchers say  

Troops in the Russia Ukraine War walking outside.
Ukrainian marines move through trees at the frontline close to the Dnipro river near Kherson, Ukraine, Saturday, Oct. 14, 2023. (AP Photo/Alex Babenko)

China is not comfortable with the U.S.-centered global security hierarchy and has been trying to portray itself as a neutral player best suited to moderate peaceful solutions, according to a new analysis by Northeastern researchers.

Headshot of Xuechen Chen on a grey background.
Xuechen Chen, professor in politics and international relations at Northeastern in London. Courtesy photo

In a recently published research article, Xuechen Chen, assistant professor in politics and international relations at Northeastern University London, and her co-author, Angela Pennisi di Floristella, senior lecturer in the department of international relations at the University of Malta, say that China has been using English-language discourse to target the broadest international audience in the context of the Russia-Ukraine war.

The researchers analyzed China’s external communication during the Russia-Ukraine war and concluded that China has been trying to portray itself as a neutral player most suitable to manage a peaceful global order, despite echoing Russia’s version of the causes of the war and contradicting its own position on state sovereignty.

The analysis, both quantitative and qualitative, reviewed the language and phonetic patterns used over a span of 10 months in official statements and press releases from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and media reports from state-controlled China Daily and Xinhua News. Researchers say it is the first systematic investigation into China’s strategic narratives. The narratives have been defining China’s geopolitical reality and influencing its foreign policy decisions, researchers say. 

NGN spoke to Chen about the concept of strategic narratives and how China sees its role in the international security architecture.

The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How would you define the concept of a strategic narrative?

Over the past decade, strategic narratives have become a very important concept in the discipline of international relations. They have been used as an important tool that different countries employ to define their geopolitical reality, achieve their own foreign policy objectives, and also to establish their own identity in international relations.

Countries use strategic narratives to communicate what they want and also to establish their short- and also long-term objectives. A strategic narrative can also shape different types of uniform policy decisions.

What did your research show about China’s perspective on Russia’s war in Ukraine and the role of the parties involved?

When China describes the Ukraine crisis, even though it’s the war between Russia and Ukraine, China regards the U.S. as the key actor that really sits at the center not only of the international security system, but also plays a key role and bears the greatest responsibility for the conflict in Ukraine. If you look at empirical data, the frequency of the use of words “the United States” in official statements and press releases is even higher than that of “Russia” or “Ukraine.” 

On top of that, China sees NATO also bearing the responsibility for the conflict and the alliance of the U.S. and NATO as a systematic challenge to the security order. 

From China’s perspective, the conflict in Ukraine is not really a regional conflict between Russia and Ukraine, but actually a part of the broader geostrategic rivalry between Russia and the U.S. and key U.S. allies. 

What about the role of the European Union?

Quite counter intuitively, from China’s perspective, the EU only plays a marginalized role in the context of the Russia and Ukraine war. 

From China’s perspective, Europe, in this situation, is a victim, and we can actually see how China wants to emphasize that. Europe is a victim of the U.S. and NATO’s expansion, which triggered the whole conflict and resulted in huge consequences that the EU now has to bear.

And how does China see and project its role in this situation?

It is a bit more nuanced, I would say. China has been trying very hard to cast itself as a very neutral and objective player that is in the best position to mitigate this conflict.

But if we delve a bit further into China’s narrative on the situation, we identify some factors that are actually quite contradictory. On the one hand, we can see China’s whole description of the war actually aligns with Russia’s position. For instance, China, jointly with Russia, is condemning the U.S. and NATO. China is also not very neutral when it comes to the problem of Ukraine’s sovereignty, because China avoided condemning Russia for Russia’s invasion of Ukrainian sovereignty by invading Ukrainian territories. 

But at the same time, even though in some issues China echoes Russia’s discourse, it also tries to distance itself a little bit from both Russia and also the U.S. by highlighting its neutrality. China wants to position itself as a member within the broader global community with this kind of distance and presents itself as a neutral and also fair player that is able to contribute to mitigating the situation. 

China is very uncomfortable with the U.S.-centered global security architecture. Through evaluating China’s discourse on the specific case of the Ukraine crisis, we can actually see that China has a wider aspiration to reform the global security governance in line with its own vision that, for instance, highlights the importance of multilateralism and that it is positioned to counter the U.S. hegemonic position in the global security architecture.

What are your thoughts on how these strategic narratives in China’s view can help it with the Taiwan issue? 

In terms of the issue of Taiwan, we found that “Taiwan” as a term has been mentioned quite a few times in China’s narratives in the context of the war in Ukraine. However, I personally feel that China’s position toward Ukraine will have some sort of negative influence on China’s justification that Taiwan is its legitimate sovereign territory. We can easily see that, first of all, China is not condemning Russia’s invasion. So in that regard, it’s something contradictory to China’s conventional position to safeguard the respect for state sovereignty at the international level.

At the same time, China also emphasizes that we shouldn’t regard the Taiwan issue as the same issue that we can see in the case of Ukraine. So China is actually using quite a double standard, when it comes to its narratives toward Ukraine’s sovereignty and Taiwanese sovereignty. 

If China fails to deliver a coherent narrative regarding the issue of Taiwan and Ukraine, I think that would hamper China when it comes to what the wider global community views as China’s position. It would be harder to persuade the international community that China is an objective, neutral player.

In terms of the rules-based international order, what does China propose as an alternative?

I think China really believes that the current security architecture is based on hegemonic dominance of the U.S. That’s something that China is not comfortable with. 

It is trying to emphasize its own visions of security based on the principle of indivisible security. China highlights that it wants to develop a new concept of security that replaces confrontation, alliances or zero-sum approach. China really highlights the importance of negotiation and dialogue, when it comes to addressing the conflicts. 

To give you a concrete example, China really is against the use of sanctions, either political sanctions or economic sanctions. Compared to the adoption of sanctions, it seems that China always wants to use a consensus-based negotiation and dialogue as the mechanism to mitigate the conflict rather than imposing sanctions onto any country.

Alëna Kuzub is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email her at Follow her on X/Twitter @AlenaKuzub.