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China's Russia ties force Ukraine to rethink partnership

William Yang in Taipei
February 7, 2023

China has maintained a "strategic partnership" with Ukraine for years, but as Beijing and Moscow deepen ties amid the ongoing war, Kyiv is wondering what this partnership is worth.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin talk during their meeting in Beijing, China, Friday, Feb. 4, 2022
Last week, Russian state media reported that Chinese President Xi Jinping was planning a visit to Moscow this springImage: Alexei Druzhinin/AP/picture alliance

China's increasingly closer relationship with Russia has raised doubts in Ukraine over its strategic partnership with Beijing, with Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Andriy Melnyk calling China's position "less and less acceptable" during a foreign policy panel discussion in Kyiv last month.  

Ukraine has maintained a strategic partnership with China since 2011, which has allowed trade and defense ties to flourish. China has been a major importer of Ukrainian grains and corn.  

Ukraine is also a major arms supplier to China. Beijing's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, is a refurbished Soviet vessel that was purchased from Ukraine.  

However, as Russia's war on Ukraine continues into a second year, there are discussions in Kyiv over reassessing the bilateral relationship with China.      

"For years, Ukraine perceived China only from the point of view of opportunity, but since the Russian invasion, Ukrainian experts have become much more critical towards China, and perceive how China could be a risk and challenge for Ukraine's national interest," said Yurii Poita, a Ukraine expert at the Institute for National Defense and Security Research (INDSR) in Taiwan.  

Russia and China's 'no limits' partnership 

Although Beijing has not explicitly supported Russia's position on the war, it has worked on building stronger ties with Moscow as the EU and the United States work on isolating Russia. 

Following talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov last week, China's Vice Foreign Minister Ma Zhaoxu said Beijing wants to advance bilateral relations with Russia in 2023.

Putin wants closer military ties with China

Last week, Russian state media reported that Chinese President Xi Jinping was planning a visit to Moscow this spring.  

Although Beijing has said there is no exact date set for the trip, the Russian Foreign Ministry said a visit by Xi would be "the central event in the bilateral agenda for 2023," according to Russia's state-run news agency Tass.  

Poita, the Ukraine expert, said that discussions in Kyiv on changing its relationship with Beijing has gradually spread from Ukrainian think tanks and media commentary to the Foreign Ministry. 

Deputy Foreign Minister Melnyk said during a panel in Kyiv last month that China's position on the ongoing war can no longer be viewed as "neutral," which is the position that Beijing has tried to claim that it maintains. "I'm not sure these relations can still be strategic," Melnyk said.  

Ukrainian lawmaker Kira Rudik told DW that China is helping Moscow to bypass some Western sanctions, while opening up markets to Russia. 

"No one remains neutral. It's either you support us or you are playing with people who want to destroy us. What we see from China right now is extremely unfortunate. Every country that's supporting Russia is basically supporting the fight. This is extremely painful," she said.  

Ukraine's cautious friendship with Taiwan 

Russia's invasion of its smaller neighbor has triggered speculation over parallels with China's belligerent stance on Taiwan, and the possibility of China carrying out a similar attack. Beijing considers Taiwan as part of Chinese territory and has vowed to "reunite" the island with the mainland, by using force if necessary.  

The war has also brought Taipei and Kyiv closer together. Over the past two months, Taiwan has signed several memorandums of understanding to help several cities in Ukraine to purchase power generation and heating equipment as Russia attacks critical infrastructure. 

Truck with a big Banner reading "Taiwan stands with Ukraine"
Russia's war against Ukraine and its ties with China have brought Taiwan and Ukraine closer togetherImage: Jose Lopes Amaral/NurPhoto/picture alliance

Additionally, Taiwan has also expressed willingness to help Ukraine upgrade its digital infrastructure as part of postwar reconstruction efforts.  

"They donated $1 million (around €1 million) for generators and I think this is a very obvious stance that they are our ally," she said. "These are the people who are supporting us and I think Ukraine should view Taiwan as a partner," said Ukrainian lawmaker Rudik. 

"A lot of people in Ukraine now know Taiwan cares enough about the war to send Ukraine money to buy generators so that Ukrainian people can survive one of the toughest winters in Ukraine's history," she added.

Although Ukraine's reassessment of its relationship with China offers an opportunity for Kyiv to build closer ties with Taiwan, experts warn that Ukraine needs to be cautious. 

"In the anticipation of the next escalation phase, Ukraine doesn't need to antagonize China. If it starts openly befriending Taiwan in the next several months, this will certainly backfire and further lead China to support Russia," Velina Tchakarova, director of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Policy (AIES), told DW. 

Expert Poita said that Ukraine is aware it needs to avoid pushing China closer to Russia, so it is being very cautious. 

"Ukraine is very careful about building up its relationship with Taiwan, but there is still a strengthening perception among Ukrainian experts and the parliament that Ukraine needs to develop its relationship with Taiwan," he said.  

"If Ukraine doesn't see any pro-Ukrainian steps from Beijing, it shows Kyiv that China is not a strategic partner and it should draw some red lines around its cooperation with China," he added. 

Edited by: Wesley Rahn

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