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How is China reacting to the Russia-Ukraine crisis?

William Yang Taipei
February 23, 2022

Experts say Beijing wants to avoid overtly taking sides, while looking for divisions in how Western countries respond to Russian aggression.

Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping in Beijing
A joint Sino-Russian statement in February called for NATO to halt expansionImage: Alexei Druzhinin/AP/picture alliance

As the Russian military began an invasion of Ukraine overnight, China’s UN envoy Zhang Jun described the situation as a “critical juncture” at a Security Council meeting.

“In the current context, all parties concerned should exercise restraint, and avoid the further escalation of tensions. We believe that the door to a peaceful solution to the Ukraine issue is not fully shut, nor should it be shut,” he said.

The comments mirror his reserved stance taken during an emergency meeting of the Security Council on Monday evening, called hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Moscow would recognize the "independence" of self-proclaimed "republics". While UN envoys from around the world condemned Russia's actions, Zhang urged dialogue but did not directly mention Russia's actions during his brief remarks.

Days earlier at the Munich Security Conference, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi urged all parties involved to avoid hyping war and creating panic.

UN Security Council meets over Ukraine crisis

China walks a diplomatic tightrope

China has previously signaled it wouldn't overtly support a Russian takeover of Ukrainian territory.

Wang also told the Munich Security Conference that China believes sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of all nations should be respected and safeguarded, emphasizing that Ukraine is no exception.

In the same vein, China criticized the Washington's response on Wednesday, saying the new US sanctions amounted to throwing "fuel on the fire" and were "irresponsible and immoral."

On Tuesday, Wang held a phone call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and in a statement issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Beijing once again called on all parties to exercise restraint and resolve differences through dialogue and negotiation.

"China's more measured response suggests Beijing's balancing in light of its relations with the US and Russia," said Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, a fellow at the National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan and a former advisor to the European Parliament.

"Beijing is aware that seeing a conflict erupt is not in its interest and Moscow is pushing China to face some difficult decisions. The balancing act from China is to protect its own interests," she told DW before the invasion began.

Can Russia go too far for China?

At the opening of the Olympic Games earlier this month in Beijing, Putin met with Chinese President Xi Jinping, with the Chinese appearing to support Russia's position on NATO expansion.

In a joint statement, Russia and China called on NATO to "ideologized approaches of the Cold War" and "respect the diversity of civilizational and cultural-historical patterns" in other countries.

Although China will likely work with Russia to push forward a shared narrative that undermines a global model of Western democracy, Moscow's attack on Ukraine could go too far for Beijing's preference for stability.

And as China more and more becomes Russia's top geopolitical ally, Beijing's response to Moscow's further incursions into Ukraine will carry more weight. 

Putin and Xi against the West

"Russia's decision [to recognize the independence of Ukraine separatist regions] should have come as a surprise to China since Beijing just several days ago advocated for the resolution of the crisis via the Minsk process, which was effectively derailed yesterday," Danil Bochkov, an expert at the Russian International Affairs Council in Moscow, told DW.

Wen-Ti Sung, a lecturer at Australian National University, told DW that China also doesn't want to see Russia launching major offenses into Ukraine, as the move could create geopolitical uncertainties that Beijing wants to avoid, as China is preparing to reassert itself on the global stage amid the 20th National Party Congress later this year.

"2022 is the year of China's power transition," he said "On top of that, since China and Russia still view each other as potential security concerns, a significantly stronger Russia is not something that China really wants to see," he added.

Sung said that China would likely remain comfortable with a limited Russian excursion into separatist-held areas in Ukraine, along the lines of the Kremlin's current claims that Moscow's troops are "peacekeepers."

"If Russia goes full steam ahead, China will have more incentives to try to distance itself from Russia, so Beijing won't be seen as 'being in this together' with a major violator of international norms," he added.

China watches Western response to Russia

Under President Xi, China has repeatedly asserted that it will "reunite" Taiwan with the mainland, as Beijing considers the self-governing island to be a renegade province.

Although the situation between Taiwan and Ukraine is far from identical, experts have said China could gain some insights on the Western response to Moscow's escalation in Ukraine and extrapolate it onto their agenda with Taiwan.

"Beijing could be gathering a lot of details now on how the West is reacting and coordinating its steps among allies," said Bochkov.

"China can compile quite an effective guidebook for any future escalations with the West, whether they are Taiwan-related or inspired by any other issue," he added.

Sung said that China will observe how the Ukraine-Russia crisis tests Western unity.

"The escalation of the Ukraine crisis shows that European countries and the US have different priorities in terms of their geopolitical concerns," Sung said.

"Whether Ukraine will become a test that exposes the fault lines within major Western countries and whether that will lead to a subsequent decrease of cohesion of the Western bloc is something that China will be observing closely."

On Wednesday, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen condemned Russia's aggression against Ukraine during a meeting with her government.

Tsai said "external forces" were "attempting to manipulate the situation in Ukraine and affect the morale in Taiwan's society," while urging her government to be "more vigilant against cognitive warfare."

The Taiwanese leader emphasized that while the situation between Taiwan and Ukraine is fundamentally different, foreign forces' attempt to influence the situation in Ukraine can still affect the morale of Taiwan's civil society.

Beijing on Wednesday said any comparison between Taiwan and Ukraine showed a "lack of the most basic understanding of the history of the Taiwan issue."

"Taiwan is not Ukraine," said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying at a regular press conference, calling the island an "inalienable part of China's territory."

She added that it was "unwise" of Taiwan to "make the Ukraine issue into a hot topic."

Petraeus: Russian threat 'has unified NATO'

Edited by: Wesley Rahn

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