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Views of Kyiv from Beijing
News of impending conflict in Ukraine has gripped the world’s headlines. What does the Kremlin’s most powerful ally make of the situation?
Over the past few weeks, Russian troops have been gathering at the eastern border of Ukraine, in an area that has been under siege by separatists for some time. Many western observers have seen it as preparation for an invasion. The US has responded by sending military assistance in the form of missiles and other weapons, while some nations have begun evacuating their diplomatic staff from Kyiv. While the two nations have engaged in diplomatic talks, they have so far come to naught.
So far, other European countries have remained neutral, respecting a long-standing ceasefire, and attempting to kickstart talks on both sides. Russians want peace too, it seems, though many believe that the separatists in the Donbas region may have a point. So what of opinions outside of Europe?
While Western media often clamours about the danger of growing Russian-Chinese ties, China doesn’t seem particularly keen to get involved, even on a spiritual level. Most Chinese headlines are concerned with impending major events such as Spring Festival and the Winter Olympics, or with reemphasising how Western states are incompetent bullies.
So what have Chinese outlets been saying about the growing crisis? Have any leaders made any comments? Does it seem that China will get involved if fighting does break out? Let’s take a look at the Russia-Ukraine crisis from China’s perspective.
We know from the last newsletter that China has less than positive opinions about the US, looking down on everything from the way they approach international politics to the way they run their country. Conversely, the alliance between China and Russia is in excellent shape, with some outlets even promoting the relationship between the two nations as a model for others to follow. How do these two disparate bonds colour China’s view of the current situation unfolding in Eastern Europe?
It’s interesting to see how Chinese media apportions blame. Unlike Western outlets that tend to paint Russia as an aggressor, China argues that the US has escalated the issue, first by refusing to be ‘reasonable’ (讲理) when Russia puts forwards its ‘appeals’ (诉求) to not let Ukraine or other nations into NATO, then by surrounding Russia with weapons (北约承诺不在俄周边部署进攻性武器). They accuse the US of pushing Ukraine's ‘soft ascension’ to NATO without literally crossing the ‘red line’ in the sand, antagonising an otherwise peaceable Russia who would obviously not be able to ignore such a situation.
It’s not just the US that is stoking tensions, but also their allies. According to a Qinghai based media station: “Countries led by the United States are always trying to intervene in other countries and provoke disputes” [以美国为首的国家总在试图干预他国，挑起争端]. Worse still, China asserts that the West in general doesn’t even care about Ukraine:
Second, the West doesn't really care about Ukraine's interests, it's just using it as a tool to weaken Russia, and the US and European countries won't take risks for Ukraine. Third, if Russia takes further action, it may attract more sanctions, and Russia will carefully evaluate it. [其次，西方并不真正关心乌克兰的利益，只是将其用作削弱俄罗斯的工具，美国和欧洲国家不会为乌克兰冒险。第三，俄罗斯如果采取进一步行动或将招来更多制裁，俄方将慎重评估。]
Note how Russia is shown as being passive until provoked by outside parties meddling in their affairs. NATO in general is also painted as an aggressor, as their actions to send more troops into Ukraine is seen as foolhardy in light of “Russia's warning that a strengthened Western presence near its borders poses a national security threat.” Here, it would seem, the West (including but not limited to Denmark, Spain, France, and the Netherlands) would be to blame if tensions rose to a fever pitch.
That said, though the US and its allies are painted in a rather unfavourable light, this doesn’t mean that China feels they’re entirely responsible for the debacle, nor that they should shoulder the burden of resolving the crisis alone.
Despite its frequent portrayal as an aggressor, it seems that China favours peaceful bilateral talks as a method to solve the conflict. Even the Global Times, known for its anti-American, patriotic vitriol, has found it in its heart to promote communication over conflict. Quoting a research fellow specialising in Eastern Europe from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, one article states: “China has always hoped that Russia and the US could solve the problem over Ukraine through dialogue, and this position will not change.”
China seems confident the conflict will not escalate into full-scale war. After all, the West did not intervene in the case of Crimea; the US, the West and Russia have become economically interdependent; and each side has different interests in Ukraine that means they’re all invested in maintaining the status quo.
It’s worth noting that it’s also in China’s best interest that the situation does not escalate further. Ukraine could be considered a frontier region for Chinese businesses, and is an important component of China’s Belt and Road strategy. China has promised $7billion in infrastructure funding, private businesses have already started funding bigger ports, grain silos, and highways. Further, while Western nations require Ukraine to improve its internal affairs such as government corruption and judicial reform, China’s policy of non-interference means that investment comes without a price tag.
Although China clearly has a different view of the situation than most Western nations, it seems more coloured by preexisting prejudice against the States than any favouritism for Russia. In many articles, Chinese media describes the back and forth between the two parties as a ‘game’ (博弈) with Ukraine playing piggy-in-the-middle.
In a call between Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday, China said it intended to uphold the principles of the 2015 Minsk Protocols, signed by leaders in Belarus, Russia, Germany, France, and Ukraine, which promote a ceasefire. In the call, the Foreign Minister reportedly said:
China will support any effort that conforms to the direction and spirit of the agreements, he said, adding China calls on all parties to remain calm and refrain from inflaming tensions or hyping up the crisis.
Wang stressed that the security of one country should not be at the expense of the security of others, and regional security should not be guaranteed by strengthening or even expanding military blocs.
In the 21st century, all parties should completely abandon the Cold War mentality and form a balanced, effective and sustainable European security mechanism through negotiations, he said, adding Russia's legitimate security concerns should be taken seriously and addressed.
Again, however, it seems China is more preoccupied with its own affairs than with international goings-on. In the call with Blinken, Wang deflected attempts for China to be promoted to mediator, and instead warned the US about starting a new Cold War with China, and “urged the US to stop disturbing the Beijing Winter Olympics, playing with fire on the Taiwan question and building all kinds of cliques to contain China.” The title of the article covering the call is even quite bluntly called “US needs to scratch China's back if it wants its own back scratched”. One should not underestimate the ability of China to make a crisis abroad about its own feelings.
Stronger worded articles warn of disinformation spreading in Western media that “could affect China-Russia mutual trust, and this reflects the "ill intention" of the Western forces trying to instigate divergences between Beijing and Moscow.” China’s interests seem to lie in protecting itself against any fallout that may occur as a result of conflict between Russia and an allied West. Again, however, all roads seem to lead back to the Olympics. According to the article:
On Monday, the Chinese Foreign Ministry refuted a Bloomberg report which claimed that the Chinese leader had allegedly asked Russian President Vladimir Putin not to invade Ukraine during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games.
“The report was purely made out of thin air. It seeks not only to smear and drive a wedge in China-Russia relations, but also to deliberately disrupt and undermine the Beijing Winter Olympics. Such a despicable trick cannot fool the international community,” Zhao Lijian, spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said at a routine press conference.
We could talk about the controversy surrounding the Beijing Winter Olympics and the situation in Xinjiang all day, but that would just take us back to yet another newsletter about the Uyghurs (not that it’s not important, but we’ve covered it extensively already). Unlike Western nations, it’s clear that Russia has no intention of sanctioning China for the goings-on in Xinjiang, making it a valuable partner outside the sphere of European and US influence, of which China is in desperate need. While developing countries in Africa and Southeast Asia may take China’s side in a dispute, Russia has the international muscle, holding a spot on the UN security council, and having a decent space program, something China is increasingly keen to develop.
A policy of noninterference?
China often emphasises its policy of non-interference, which, in a nutshell, states: you don’t get involved in our affairs and we won’t get involved in yours. Interestingly, the issues surrounding this policy came up around 8 years ago, when the Russian annexation of Crimea was taking place. At that time, in 2014, The Economist wrote:
oddly, the spokesman never goes on to criticise Vladimir Putin or Russia, which, in annexing Crimea, has interfered in Ukrainian internal affairs in the crudest way imaginable. Swift to pounce on any alleged hypocrisy in Western foreign policy, China now seems to be upholding double standards of its own. In truth, it always has. But the crisis in Ukraine has exposed the contradictions in China’s “principled” diplomacy with unusual starkness.
It seems like events are repeating themselves. China will not openly condemn or support Russia, and instead promotes ceasefire and cooperation, and seems to be turning inwards at a crucial turning point in international affairs. There’s no doubt that if Russia invades Ukraine, the balance of global powers will be permanently changed, and open warfare could break out. And yet China has nothing definitive to say on the matter.
While China’s lack of comment on the issue seems to be an attempt to promote an air of superior neutrality, I believe it belies a different truth. China is waiting for either party to misplay. Whether it will use the situation to take advantage of border disputes with Russia, launch an invasion of Taiwan or some other disputed territory, or just to kick the US while it's down, remains to be seen.
But as long as China doesn’t ‘interfere’ then it can’t be blamed. Instead it can simply watch from the sidelines, smugly proclaiming the end of Western democracy and the demise of US hegemony, while promoting the superiority of Chinese governance at home and abroad.
Beijing Ribao, 俄罗斯与美西方会在乌克兰打起来吗 [Will Russia go to war with the US and the West in Ukraine?]
China Daily, China and Russia: A model for relations
China Daily, Wang Yi speaks with Antony Blinken in phone call
China Daily, Beijing role as voice for peace wins praise
Qinghai Radio and Television Station, 乌克兰危机升级！美国务院通告：局势不可预测，不要前往俄罗斯！[Ukraine crisis escalates! US State Department Announcement: The situation is unpredictable, do not go to Russia!]
Sina, 危机重重 乌克兰局势何去何从 [As the crisis escalates, where will the Ukraine situation go]
Sina, 俄罗斯要失败了？美国和北约书面驳回俄方“红线”文件：没得谈 [Has Russia failed? The US and NATO formally reject Russia’s ‘red line’ document: no talks necessary]
The Diplomat, Ukraine: China Flexes Its Investment Muscle
The Economist, Non-interference on the line