The War in Ukraine Is Testing China’s New Partnership With Russia
As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continues to draw outrage and reprisals from the international community, China is maintaining the cautious distance from Moscow it has taken since the onset of the crisis, with many observers suggesting that Beijing may have been caught unaware by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to authorize a full-scale invasion, after months of tensions between Kyiv and Moscow. Yet behind China’s heavily censored internet firewall, where media outlets disseminate Russian propaganda and blame the West for instigating the conflict, Chinese internet users see Putin as a hero and are cheering Russia’s incursion on.
In a joint statement issued on the opening day of the 2022 Winter Olympics held last month in Beijing, China and Russia declared that the “friendship between the two states has no limit.” Though the statement did not describe their partnership as a formal alliance, it nonetheless stated that there are no “forbidden” areas of cooperation, perhaps suggesting that joint military action is a possibility down the line. But only a few weeks after the formalization of that cooperation agreement between the two countries, their partnership, centered on their mutual resistance against Western influence and pursuit of a more multipolar international order, is now being put to the test.
In a Monday press briefing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin evaded a question seeking clarity regarding Beijing’s position on Russia’s invasion. Describing the two countries as “comprehensive strategic partners of coordination,” Wang said “our relationship features non-alliance, non-confrontation and non-targeting of any third party.”
“China believes that one country’s security cannot be at the expense of others’ security,” he added, repeating talking points used by another government spokesperson, Hua Chunying, to lambaste the U.S. and NATO for what Beijing regards as fanning the flames of conflict and “pushing a big country to the wall.”
Beijing’s actions—or lack thereof—reflect its precarious position on what senior government officials and state broadcasters refer to as “a special military action.”
Subscribe to receive China Note by email every Wednesday. If you’re already a subscriber, adjust your newsletter settings to receive it directly to your email inbox.
Foreign Minister and State Councilor Wang Yi expressed concerns about the harm to civilians already on display in the first days of the Russian invasion in a phone call Tuesday with his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba. Though Kubela said that Ukraine is willing to maintain lines of communication with China and looks forward to Beijing playing a mediation role in reaching a cease-fire, Wang demurred on the question of whether Beijing would intervene diplomatically in the conflict.
“China supports Russia negotiating with Ukraine to resolve the problem,” Chinese President Xi Jinping told his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin in a phone call last Friday, without pledging any further assistance beyond the modest step of lifting restrictions on Russian wheat imports. According to U.S. officials, China does not appear to be helping Russia evade far-reaching sanctions imposed by the West, including Russia’s removal from the SWIFT global financial messaging system. In addition, China abstained from voting on last Friday’s United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Russia’s attack on Ukraine as well as from another procedural vote Sunday.
“The two abstentions show that China has adopted a more prudent attitude than before amid the extremely broad criticism and protest of the world against Russia’s all-round attacks,” Shi Yinhong, an international relations expert at Renmin University of China, told the Associated Press.
Many experts believe that Beijing made a serious miscalculation of its own in failing to anticipate when Putin would authorize the Ukraine invasion. According to The New York Times, over the past three months, Chinese officials—including Qin Gang, Beijing’s ambassador to Washington—repeatedly ignored warnings from their U.S. counterparts of an impending Russian incursion into Ukraine. Beijing’s failure to consider the risks or likelihood of an invasion likely informed Xi’s calculus before signing on to February’s cooperation agreement deepening China’s partnership with Russia, people with knowledge of Beijing’s decision-making circles told the Wall Street Journal.
“A careful examination of the events suggests that China was, in fact, played,” Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Washington-based think tank, Stimson Center, argued, pointing to the failure by the Chinese Embassy in Ukraine to evacuate Chinese citizens in the country before Russian troops moved in, as well as predictions by prominent Chinese experts of Russian affairs that turned out to be incorrect. “The beauty of Putin’s play is that China cannot rebuff and clarify they didn’t know. If they do, it would be telling the world that China was played by Russia and their alignment is not nearly as solid as China wanted the U.S. to believe,” Sun added.
Though Chinese officials remain circumspect and wary of being perceived as enablers of Russia amid the conflict, discussions across Chinese social media platforms paint a different picture. The headline “Residents of eastern Ukraine celebrate Putin recognizing republics with fireworks” became a top trending topic on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, where pro-Russian sentiment thrives. A translation of the Russian leader’s speech Thursday, in which he announced the launching of the invasion, went viral, with users hailing Putin as “the greatest strategist of this century” for what is perceived to be his standing up to the West’s bullying.
Nonetheless, a range of anti-war Chinese voices have emerged on social media platforms as well, putting the conflict into a broader historical context and denouncing the knee-jerk anti-West rhetoric. “The grand narrative of nationalism and great-power chauvinism has squeezed out their last bit of humanity,” an anonymous author wrote in an article that has since been removed by WeChat moderators for violating the platform’s regulations.
In Other News
With an unprecedented number of 117 new deaths recorded Tuesday, Hong Kong’s coronavirus fatality rate is now the highest in the developed world, according to Bloomberg calculations based on data provided by Johns Hopkins University. Meanwhile, across the border, China is weighing plans to loosen its coronavirus control measures. Officials are considering implementing travel bubbles as used during the recent Winter Olympics in China, and pilot measures could be rolled out in select cities as early as this summer, the Wall Street Journal reported. “China’s dynamic zero-COVID is for a specific period of epidemic prevention, and will not remain unchanged forever,” Zeng Guang, a former chief scientist at China’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention, wrote in a social media post on Monday, a growing sign that China is rethinking its strategy.
Worth a Read
Through land title searches and court documents, Sam Cooper and Andrew Russell of Global News mapped $154 million worth of real estate investments by Xiao Jianhua, the Chinese-Canadian billionaire abducted in 2017 from the Four Seasons Hotel in Hong Kong by Chinese security officials. Though Chinese regulators seized his assets in 2020, amid a campaign to reduce Chinese financial markets’ exposure to systemic risks, Global News identified six companies linked to the detained oligarch, his wife and her family, whose assets in Canada include luxury personal properties in the Toronto area, condominium developments across the city and other lucrative deals. The case has raised questions about anti-money laundering compliance in Canada.
China Note-Taker is writing anonymously for reasons of personal security.