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In the name of friendship? China and the Ukraine crisis continued
As the Russia-Ukraine conflict escalates, China finds itself more and more embroiled in the affair, seemingly against its will.
“Countries’ reasonable security concerns should be respected and a balanced, effective, and sustained European security mechanism should finally be formed through dialogue and negotiation.”
So said Xi Jinping to Vladimir Putin in a phone call on February 25th. If this comment by a leading superpower in the face of the most pressing European conflict in decades seems a bit vague and non-committal, that’s because it is. As one former senior editor at the Xinhua News Agency stated in a blog post detailing censorship protocols for Chinese news outlets: "Simply put, China has to back Russia up with emotional and moral support while refraining from treading on the toes of the United States and European Union.” (The post was later the same day).
If Western sources are to be believed, China is taking notes on Putin’s approach, preparing to use the same tactics Russia has used in this conflict to invade Taiwan. It’s true that the same editor who commented on censorship rules later added to his post “In the future, China will also need Russia's understanding and support when wrestling with America to solve the Taiwan issue once and for all.” Thus looking from the outside in, China is playing coy, but in reality China and Russia are thick as thieves. But is this how the CCP, and the Chinese public, understand the situation?
China-Russia relations are unusually lopsided. Though Russia relies more on China economically, China relies heavily on its diplomatic friendship with Russia, “one of China’s very few true friends” according to some experts. A fellow nuclear power which also has a permanent seat on the UN security council, Russia is an important ally when it comes to maintaining China’s vision of a new global community, one that does not involve US hegemony. But both countries still assert that they are just friends, not formal political or military allies. Unlike the West which requires you to adhere to its political ideology and definitions of ‘human rights’ and ‘democracy’, both Russia and China have a more laissez-faire approach to each others’ internal goings-on, allowing them to overlook problematic actions that Western nations can’t seem to get past.
This is probably how we arrived at the current situation. China neither supports nor condemns Russia’s actions. To be frank, China really has no dog in this fight, as the outcome of the war affects neither its own geopolitical interests nor its economic development. But, as Western media has rightly pointed out, the two are friends. China now has the status that it has coveted for a century - global superpower. But with great status comes great responsibility. China cannot but be involved in the Russia-Ukraine affair. Unable to simply stand on the sidelines and comment, official statements must be made, diplomatic negotiations must be held, and China must ultimately decide to what extent it wants to wade into the muddy waters of the conflict.
How far China seems willing to go to support its friend is the main question for this week.
Statements so far
China still maintains that the situation was essentially caused by US interference. Most articles have a statement to the effect of “many analysts believe that the root cause of the Ukraine crisis lies in the continuous expansion of NATO led by the United States and its continuous approach to Russia's border, which ultimately affects Russia's fundamental security interests.” (有不少分析认为，乌克兰危机的根源就在于以美国为首的北约不断扩张，不断向俄罗斯的边境逼近，最终影响到了俄罗斯的根本安全利益。)
The use of ‘security interests’ is a neat phrase to sidestep the fact that Russia has invaded a sovereign nation, something that China opposes in theory. What’s more important to China here is the context of the invasion. They take pains to point out that NATO is a hangover from the Cold War era, but the US has continued to use it as a weapon of expansion in Europe, despite the fact that they had promised Russia they would not. They also accuse the US of instigating a ‘colour revolution’ in Ukraine in 2014 to overthrow the pro-Russian leader, causing a situation where “the Crimea region decided to secede from Ukraine and merged into Russia through a referendum.”
On Twitter, Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian criticises calls for China to intervene while the US continues to stoke tensions.
From these statements alone it seems that China is in support of Russia, or at least understands where they’re coming from. They also take care to question the legitimacy of Ukrainian grievances, pointing out that donations made to the Ukrainian military are funding neo-Nazi groups like the Azov Battalion, something that US media has pointed out in the past, making “some of the claims made Western media attack[ing] Putin after Russia's use of force against Ukraine seem unconvincing.”
But they’re not so tactless as to just try and smear the Ukrainian side. As with their own political situation, Chinese media is keen to stress the importance of historical context when explaining the current crisis, pointing out its complex history and culture, as well as the different interests of multiple European countries and Russia. The main issue lies with Ukraine’s diverse ethnic makeup, including the political interests of different ethnic groups:
“In terms of political orientation, the residents of West Ukraine support Ukraine's integration into European and Western organizations, including NATO, and oppose Ukraine's participation in any integration bloc with Russia, support free market economic and political reforms, and advocate limiting the state's economic interference. The eastern and part of the southern residents retained the characteristics of the Soviet political culture, opposed market reforms in the early years of independence, and supported the state's supervision of large-scale industry. Most of the eastern residents advocate close cooperation or integration with Russia, advocate the declaration of Russian as the second national language, and firmly oppose Ukraine's accession to NATO.”
So for China, the issue is not so much a case of unilaterally supporting Russia and condemning Ukraine, but painting a broader picture, particularly when it comes to understanding the role of the West. It’s careful not to label Russia as an aggressor, but also wants people to understand that perhaps Ukraine - apparently barely a legitimate nation - does not have as much agency as Western media gives it. Ukraine’s President Zelensky, for example, seems not to know that his country is considered a mere ‘chess piece’ by Western nations; something to be abandoned or sacrificed as soon as it loses strategic importance. Ukraine is a somewhat tragic nation, one that “cannot escape the fate of the game of great powers (无法逃脱大国博弈的命运).”
But it could be the case that China is biding its time on coming down on one side or another. After all, China has other considerations when it comes to long-term relations, not just with Russia, but also the rest of the world.
America, EU and other allies imposed sanctions on Russia’s financial system on Feb 26th, aiming to freeze access to foreign-exchange reserves. The harsh sanctions seem to be taking a toll, as the Ruble’s quickly lost 40% of its value, and Russia simply refused to open stock markets on February 28th. Western media suggests that China will be watching how these sanctions affect the Russian economy very closely. China has $3.4trn of reserves, most of which “are held in Western financial instruments or through Western firms”. According to The Economist, China “will be watching and learning from Russia’s financial squeeze, and how Russia retaliates, and trying to assess how it can avoid becoming crushed by the West’s financial vice.”
For their part, China is putting on a brave face in the light of recent sanctions, opposing them as illegal, and vowing to continue normal trade relations with Russia. Spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Wang Wenbin, stated that: "China and Russia will continue to carry out normal trade cooperation in the spirit of mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit," as the sanctions have no international legal basis and are unusually harsh. They also point out that the sanctions have the potential to backfire, causing a fuel crisis across Europe (can confirm, petrol prices ridiculously high at the moment) and affecting international stock markets.
But could China actually be afraid of the possibility of Western sanctions? Maybe. Recently, a Chinese paper stating that “China is likely to be the bigger loser from the technological and economic decoupling” from the US due to the fact that it lags “in a number of important areas such as semiconductors, operating systems and aerospace” was wiped from the internet entirely. Some have speculated that this was because the paper signalled weakness at a time when the CCP is intent on conveying strength, and working towards independence and self-sufficiency in every area of its economy. In another newsletter I was going to write (before war broke out), I found that most Chinese media outlets are projecting a strong and healthy Chinese economy, flourishing in the face of a global economic downturn. The CCP’s focus for the next few decades is building a self-sufficient economic system that relies on domestic production of goods and services, as well as internally developed financial services backed by the Yuan.
But China’s economy is not autonomous just yet. China still relies on imports for large amounts of its food supplies, as well as technology and parts for important industries such as aviation, aerospace, and semiconductors. Most of these sectors are dominated by the US or their close allies. Part of the problem is getting people to switch to homegrown alternatives. When Android stopped working with Huawei phones, the Chinese company’s revenues dropped 30%. The government’s attempts to create an alternative to the SWIFT payment system, CIPS, has run into similar roadblocks, especially as international trust in China dips.
So ripples in the global economic system still do have the potential to impact China. Bearing this in mind, a question that will become more important as the situation unfolds is: how far is China willing to go to ensure its friendship with Russia?
It seems that no matter which way you look at it, no matter what sources you consult, China’s stance is simply not black and white. The conflict between its policy of non-interference and its fight against what they consider to be Western imperialism, plus its economic and developmental interests (surprise surprise, Ukraine is a part of the Belt and Road initiative) would give even the most astute politicians pause.
These conflicting attitudes can especially be seen in China’s online social media space. Soon after Russia launched its invasion, a trending topic “so concerned about Ukraine, can’t focus on work” (乌心工作) emerged on Weibo, with many stating that they hope the two countries will resolve the issue peacefully. However, there have been many pro-Russian posts, describing the situation as a just fight, one that is actively combating Western imperialism. Some netizens have taken the opportunity to link the situation to China’s own relations with Taiwan: “I resolutely support the Russian military action! This is the evil result of Ukraine following the Yankees (美国佬). We should seize the opportunity to liberate Taiwan and to recover the Diaoyu Islands.”
But opinions are still mixed. One user warns of the dangers of forgetting China’s own past:
“If we call Russia good and cheer them on, how are we any different from those who cheered on Japan’s invasion of China?”
Some anti-Russia posts have been found, as many people have pointed out that China has ongoing border disputes with its neighbour, and others simply support the Ukrainian people in their struggle for independence and survival. Chinese students in Ukraine face anti-Chinese sentiments as many people believe that China supports Russia’s invasion. The party is as quick as ever to reign in unruly comments, stating that there are to be no “pro-Western posts, no posts critical of Russia”, and that all posts must be moderated before appearing on online platforms. All news outlets are to stick to reposting stories already published by the party’s official outlets, Xinhua, the People's Daily and CCTV. They are particularly worried about the possibility that Western media outlets might get a hold of a handful of comments and conflate them with general Chinese opinion, even outing some popular China-watcher sites like SupChina as potential instigators.
The Chinese public’s hesitance to take a definitive stance reflects the attitude of their leaders: a cautious, highly censored, balanced view that fails to commit to a holistic set of values. Many of the nation’s true opinions are simply not being shared, partly to stop the situation escalating to the point where China has to get involved diplomatically, and partly because the CCP is keen to control the overall narrative, including national sentiment. When a flurry of comments coming down on one side or the other start flooding in, then we’ll know what the government really thinks.
The true enemy
China will find it tricky to remain a neutral third party, and not just in the case of a continuing Russia-Ukraine conflict. Their mutual alignment is called into question by contrasting alliances; countries that China has beef with, like India, for example, are allies of Russia. Russia too will have to decide if it wants to jump into the fray if a skirmish were to break out between China and, say, the AUKUS countries over the South China Sea or Taiwan. It may not necessarily be the case that the two can depend on each other the same way that Western nations feel they can call on one another in times of crisis.
One dependable method of staying good friends with Russia, however, is maintaining a commitment to condemning the US and their allies for both the current situation and any future outbreaks of war, conflict, invasion, terrorism, etc. This technique is convenient, as it allows China to avoid disparaging Russia (who probably doesn’t want China involved anyway) or provoking the US, who can’t say China has done anything to be the aggressor in the situation.
The two nations want their independence, both from each other and the rest of the world. Perhaps measured neutrality is something the two countries have negotiated among themselves. After all, they may not necessarily want a brother in arms, but rather a friend in need, to help them point the finger elsewhere.
Chang’an Observer, 美西方对俄极限制裁的警示 [Warning over US and Western extreme sanctions against Russia]
China Daily, Xi and Putin exchange views on Ukrainian situation
China Daily, Russia-Ukraine jokes hit social media wall
China Youth Network, 5分钟了解乌克兰危机的“祸根”在哪？[Understand the root cause of the Ukraine crisis in 5 minutes]
Huanqiu, 给乌克兰军队捐款？连美国人都意识到了这里面有个“大坑”！[Donate to the Ukrainian army? Even Americans know there is a ‘big trap’ here!]
The Diplomat, Belt and Road in Ukraine
The Economist, How new sanctions could cripple Russia’s economy
The Economist, China wants to insulate itself against Western sanctions