Under Diplomatic Pressure, China Sends Mixed Signals About Its Support to Russia

At the closing of the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, world leaders congratulated themselves on having achieved a rare moment of unity: issuing a joint statement that “deplores in the strongest terms the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine and demands its complete and unconditional withdrawal from the territory of Ukraine.” Given China’s support for Russia throughout the war, some observers interpreted Xi Jinping’s acquiescence to this statement as evidence that China may finally be distancing itself from Russia. However, growing economic ties between both countries and the amplification of Russian narratives by China’s internal propaganda machine suggest that Sino-Russian relations remain strong. Under greater diplomatic pressure, Xi may be attempting to mollify both sides.

Diplomatic pressure may have put some limits on Xi’s partnership with Russia. French President Emmanuel Macron left the summit “convinced China can play, on our side, a more important mediating role in the coming months” to prevent Russian aggression in Ukraine. Amplifying the concerns of many G20 leaders, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez urged China to use its influence to help end the war. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz persuaded Xi to publicly condemn nuclear threats during his visit to Beijing last week, and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi echoed Xi’s views this week. On the opening day of the summit, a missile strike killed two people inside Poland, raising fears that the war would dramatically escalate and prompting NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg to criticize China for its support of Russia. Henry Foy and Mercedes Ruehl at The Financial Times described how China ultimately buckled in the face of a united G20:

“It was like all of the pressure suddenly left the room,” said an official from the Indian delegation, as Russia — and China — buckled to allow a qualified condemnation of Moscow’s war against Ukraine.

[…] Two delegates said that China ultimately had been reluctant to be grouped alone alongside Russia, a fear that pushed Beijing to accept the statement. [Source]

However, as Foster Klug at the Associated Press reported, China may not have fundamentally shifted its stance on Russia’s war:

Privately, however, some diplomats were wary about declaring that China has shifted its stance on Russia.

Chinese President Xi Jinping may have simply made a decision to not be seen as a spoiler or outlier during face-to-face meetings with other leaders in Bali. The statement also allows China to avoid going all-in with a Russia that is looking more and more isolated as it increases attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure.

What Beijing hasn’t done is change — or even publicly question — its fundamental relations with Russia. [Source]

Indeed, there were plenty of signs that China had not abandoned Russia. After a meeting with his Russian counterpart in Bali, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated that China is willing to “push forward their high-level exchanges and communication in various fields, [and] deepen bilateral practical cooperation.” In the talks leading up to the G20’s final joint statement, China objected to calling Russia’s invasion of Ukraine a “war,” arguing that the G20 was not the right forum in which to discuss security matters. The final statement acknowledged that “there were other views and different assessments of the situation and sanctions.” Moreover, as Manoj Kewalramani noted in Tracking the People’s Daily, the CCP’s flagship newspaper reprinted the full description regarding Ukraine in the G20 statement, but crucially omitted the final sentence

What’s missing is the final sentence: “Today’s era must not be of war.” Now, that might not sound like a really big deal to others. But if you were in India, that sentence is a big deal, because that’s the formulation that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had put forward during his engagement with President Vladimir Putin in September on the sidelines of the [Shanghai Cooperation Organization]. And the fact that it was part of the G20’s view on the situation was a big deal domestically in India and was seen [as] a measure of the success of Indian diplomacy during this difficult moment.

[…] Having worked for over a decade in the news media, including Chinese state media, I understand that more often than not incompetence and oversight, rather than malice, are better explanations for reporting errors and omissions. This simply does not appear to be one of those cases. Unfortunately, this seems like a deliberate and rather petty decision to omit that sentence. [Source]

Outside of the G20 negotiations, China has recently continued to support Russian interests. Just this week, Chinese state media distorted events on the battlefield in order to obfuscate Ukrainian successes and Russian losses in Kherson, and blamed Ukraine for the Russian missile strike on Poland while repeatedly airing explanations from the Russian Defense Ministry. On Tuesday, China opposed a U.N. General Assembly draft resolution calling for Russia to potentially compensate Ukraine for the war. In a meeting on Thursday with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Xi said that “to achieve world peace, the purposes and principles of the UN Charter must be observed and the legitimate security concerns of all countries must be taken seriously,” referencing Russia’s disdain for NATO. 

In the economic realm, Sino-Russian relations are strengthening. Recent reports show that China has become the top exporter to Russia, as Western sanctions forced Moscow to cut trade with the E.U. In addition, China’s bilateral trade with Russia grew 31 percent in the first eight months of 2022, and in July China imported 49.3 percent more goods from Russia compared to last year. China remains Russia’s largest trading partner.

But another incident hinted at increasing friction between the two countries. Earlier this week, The Financial Times reported that “Putin didn’t tell Xi the truth” about his plans to invade Ukraine, according to a Chinese official briefed on the leaders’ meeting in February. Sinocism author Bill Bishop took a skeptical view of the quote, writing: “It is ironic that after constant criticism of use of anonymous sources the PRC government appears now to be trying to change [the] narrative on its support for Putin and Russia with a strategically timed revelation to the FT.” Writing for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Reid Standish argued that whether or not Putin lied to Xi, China has shown a pragmatic willingness to continue supporting Russia:

China certainly has its own interests in keeping a distance from Moscow’s war and using that space to do some upkeep with the West. But perhaps the most important point here is that even if Putin did blindside Xi, China has stuck with Russia despite its battlefield failures, political isolation, and the atrocities its troops are accused of committing.

Again, this is pragmatism more than anything else. As Chinese experts often say, even if Russia is looking unattractive these days, why would Beijing abandon its main anti-Western partner as China continues to be in the crosshairs of rising American pressure? [Source]

Potential deception and leverage aside, Xi has remained closely connected with Putin. The two leaders have met at least 38 times—more than twice as many times as Xi has met with any other world leader. Since the war began, they have spoken or met at least three times, while Xi has yet to speak directly with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Late last month, Putin stated that “[Xi] has called me his friend and I consider him as such,” to which China’s foreign ministry replied, “We highly appreciate the positive remarks by President Putin on China-Russia relations.”

On Thursday, Sheena Chestnut Greitens shared her recent academic paper in Asian Survey examining China’s response to the war in Ukraine and analyzing the extent of Chinese support for Russia:

This article assesses the Chinese party-state’s response across four dimensions: informational, diplomatic, economic, and military-strategic. Beijing has been most supportive of Moscow in the informational and diplomatic arenas; its economic posture has been mostly self-interested, and military support for Russia has remained more or less constant. China’s stance on the conflict in Ukraine appears to be shaped by several factors: a perceived need to counter the United States; the desire to support Russia while minimizing the costs of doing so to Chinese interests; China’s desire for internal political stability and particular features of its domestic political system that affect foreign policy decision-making; and Beijing’s evolving assessments of what the Ukraine conflict might foretell for Taiwan. [Source]

Meanwhile, as John Feng reported in Newsweek last month, China’s reluctance to pressure Russia to end the war has pushed some Ukrainian parliamentarians towards closer relations with Taiwan:

Ukrainian lawmaker Kira Rudik, one of the [pro-Taiwan] group’s members, traveled to Taipei this week to express her gratitude and to drum up further support for Ukraine’s resistance. Rudik leads the pro-European, liberal Holos party.

She met with Taiwanese counterparts who officially constituted their own pro-Ukraine caucus earlier in October. In remarks at the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s single-chamber parliament, Rudik said Tuesday that the Rada’s group was “in the process of being registered.”

[…] Rudik said in a tweet on Tuesday that Taiwan had contributed to the rebuilding of Ukraine by sending $500,000 each to the cities of Sumy, Mykolaiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv and Bucha, and $3 million to Kyiv.

On Wednesday, Joseph Wu, Taiwan’s foreign minister, announced an expanded aid budget of $56 million to help reconstruct schools and hospitals in Ukraine. [Source]


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