China Embraces Russia, Remains Noncommittal Over Mediator Role

China’s friendship with Ukraine is “rock solid,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told reporters during an annual Two Sessions press conference. “No matter how perilous the international landscape, we will maintain our strategic focus and promote the development of a comprehensive China-Russia partnership in the new era,” Wang further asserted. Wang’s comments come as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine drags into a second week. Europe has already received 1.7 million Ukrainian refugees and the world’s nuclear powers have been put on high alert by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear posturing. At South China Morning Post, Jun Mai and Laura Zhou reported on Wang Yi’s press conference, in which he blamed NATO for the war, embraced Russia, and yet offered aid and mediation to Ukraine:

“Calm is needed … rather than pouring oil on the fire,” he said, as he called for more dialogue.

Wang said China welcomed talks between Ukraine and Russia, and was willing to play a mediation role. He said the Red Cross Society of China would send emergency aid to Ukraine.

[…] Beijing has also recognised the “legitimate security concerns” of Moscow and hit out at Western sanctions on Russia. It has abstained from voting on a United Nations resolution condemning the attack. [Source]

During the press conference, Wang Yi also thanked NATO countries for providing shelter to Chinese evacuees fleeing the fighting. Before the outbreak of war, the Chinese government repeatedly mocked other countries for organizing precautionary evacuations, leaving Chinese citizens in the country caught off guard by Russia’s invasion. Notwithstanding the nod to NATO’s help, Wang’s press conference was rife with anti-American sentiment. In an editorial praising Wang’s performance at the press conference and critiquing “Washington’s ‘bloodsucking’ behavior,” nationalist tabloid Global Times asked a string of rhetorical questions to hammer home Wang’s point:

It is noticeable that about two-thirds of the 27 questions and Wang’s answers were directly or indirectly related to the US, which reflects the wide implication of China-US relations. Who is adding fuel to the fire and intensifying the conflicts on the Ukraine issue? Who has picked up the Cold War mentality again and created confrontation? Who doesn’t want to see the steady development of China-EU relations? Who is driving a wedge in the relationship between China and its neighbors? Who sees Latin America as its “backyard?” Who is making waves in the South China Sea? Wang did not say it explicitly, but the answer is self-evident, and the world’s understanding of it will become deeper. [Source]

Despite China’s clear embrace of Russia, the European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell told a Spanish newspaper that China must mediate the crisis: “There is no alternative. We [Europeans] cannot be the mediators, that is clear … And it cannot be the US either. Who else? It has to be China, I trust in that.” Global Times called Borrell’s comment “presumptive,” and interviewed Cui Hongjian, director of the Department of European Studies at the China Institute of International Studies, who decried the request. Cui said, “China will never stop a fight in a biased way like the West does—stopping one side while winking at the other.” At The Washington Post, Christian Shepherd wrote about China’s potential role as a mediator in the crisis:

Wang further implied that Chinese President Xi Jinping had encouraged Putin to begin talks when the two spoke by phone on Feb. 25, with Xi expressing China’s desire for peace talks to begin “as soon as possible.”

[…] China officially maintains a position of noninterference in other countries’ domestic affairs, making it traditionally reluctant to play an active role beyond disputes that touch on core Chinese interests. In recent years, China has adopted a more active foreign policy stance and positioned itself as a broker in several disputes, including those between Pakistan and Afghanistan or between North and South Korea.

[…] On Saturday, in a phone call with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Wang called on the United States, the E.U. and NATO to “engage in equal-footed dialogue with Russia, face up to the frictions and problems accumulated over the years.” [Source]

On Twitter, Andrew Small, a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, wrote a thread on his doubts about the likelihood of China playing a constructive role in Ukrainian-Russian peace talks:

China has steadfastly refused to condemn Russia. Online censorship of anti-war voices is rampant. A leaked censorship directive issued by the Cyberspace Administration of China and translated by China Digital Times revealed that authorities instructed China’s internet giants to “Strictly control challenges to our official statements, vilification of our foreign policy, incitement of Sino-Russian antagonism, pessimism about Sino-Russian relations […] and dissemination of harmful viewpoints that support or adulate the United States.” At The New York Times, Chris Buckley and Steven Lee Myers reported that Xi’s relationship with Putin is complicating China’s relationship with Russia:

A retracing of Beijing’s trail of decisions shows how Mr. Xi’s deep investment in a personal bond with Mr. Putin has limited China’s options and forced it into policy contortions.

[…] “He’s damned if he did know, and damned if he didn’t,” Paul Haenle, a former director for China on the National Security Council, said of whether Mr. Xi had been aware of Russia’s plans to invade. “If he did know and he didn’t tell people, he’s complicit; if he wasn’t told by Putin, it’s an affront.”

[…] “Many decision makers in China began to perceive relations in black and white: either you are a Chinese ally or an American one,” said [Sergiy Gerasymchuk, an analyst with Ukrainian Prism, a foreign policy research organization in Kyiv,] who has been spending nights in a bomb shelter. “They still want to remain sort of neutral, but they bitterly failed.” [Source]

Despite the Chinese government’s support for Russia, some Chinese businesses have already withdrawn from the Russian market due to U.S. and European sanctions—and Russia’s draconian new restrictions on freedom of speech. Global Times posted, and then deleted, an essay hailing U.S. sanctions as an opportunity for Chinese businesses. Analysts at the research firm Gavekal Dragonomics wrote: “For most Chinese companies, Russia is just too small of a market for the business to be worth the risk of getting cut off from developed markets or being sanctioned itself.” TikTok, which is owned by the Chinese conglomerate ByteDance, announced that it was suspending Russian users’ ability to upload or view new videos and livestreams in an effort to protect its Russia-based employees and users from severe criminal penalties potentially incurred by viewing or uploading anti-war videos.

Yet Chinese domestic opinion is also influencing business decisions. The international branch of Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi decided to reverse its exit from the Russian market after nationalist netizens encouraged a boycott of the company they described as a “running dog” for United States imperialism. Others are trying to walk a tightrope. Alibaba’s AliExpress, which has operations in both Russia and Ukraine, has censored Ukrainian livestream influencers who have used the platform to comment on the war, but it has yet to release a statement on its position in either market, perhaps in part to avoid Didi’s fate.


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