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The Role of China in the Ukraine Crisis

BY ALICE STANDEN

Xi Jinping at the UN in 2017 - non-interference a has been central theme in China's foreign policy.


While most global superpowers have come out in firm opposition to the invasion of Ukraine, China’s international relations have put it in an awkward position. China’s foreign policy includes restraint from interfering in the affairs of other countries, and their public announcements have called for de-escalation of the current crisis in Ukraine. However, the country has been accused of collaborating with Moscow in creating a "profoundly illiberal" world order by the United States. As one of the most powerful nations in the world, China’s position on the crisis could end up being pivotal, but their urge to strengthen political ties with Russia lies in direct contrast to their connections in the West.


The growing diplomatic relationship between China and Russia was demonstrated at the recent Winter Olympic Games, where President Vladimir Putin was one of few big world leaders in attendance. During the event, the two leaders also released a joint statement on international relations “entering a new era”, which described the two countries as being in a close, comprehensive strategic partnership. This statement was released on February 4, just 20 days before Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24. It’s also notable that, according to a Western intelligence report, Chinese officials had advised Putin to wait until the Games were over to send troops into Ukraine.


In a recent Security Council session, China abstained from condemning the invasion of Ukraine, which according to BBC News, was a relief for political analysts— calling it “a win for the west”— as they had expected them to vote against the motion as Russia did. However, Beijing’s non-interference also demonstrates their refusal to condemn the invasion and China has also been faced with accusations of purposely neglecting the crisis in Ukraine. Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin has so far refrained from using the term invasion to describe the ongoing military efforts and there have been claims that China ignored calls from US officials to intervene sooner, according to BBC News.


Despite being heavily regulated, Chinese social media has also been full of support for Russia, including the (state-linked) Beijing Daily, which re-shared a statement made by the Russian Embassy in Beijing urging others not to help the "neo-Nazi" government in Ukraine. Comments on social media are also heavily in favour of Russia and Putin while condemning the US — in any other country, this might just be seen as freedom of expression on social media, but China has repeatedly demonstrated their capability to restrict opinions online. The fact that these posts and comments are staying up on social media demonstrate condoning from the Chinese government.


Chinese nationalists have urged the government to take advantage of the situation and follow in Russia’s footsteps by invading Taiwan. However, since the Russia-Ukraine situation escalated, the Chinese government has rejected the sanctions imposed on Russia and generally opposes sanctions, as they are viewed as an ineffective measure in solving disputes. China knows that if they attempt to invade Taiwan, they’ll face a similar fate as Russia and face sanctions of their own, making it unlikely that they’ll try to take back the island with force.


Despite their diplomatic relationship with Russia, China also has a stake in maintaining European friendships. For example, the nation is Ukraine’s top trading partner, meaning China will want to maintain connections with the country. The 21st century has also been called a “golden age” of relationships between China and the UK, (which is the largest recipient of Chinese investment in Europe), so China will be reluctant to ruin these trading opportunities by openly supporting the war to which Western Europe is strongly opposed.


Now, following a phone call between the Chinese and Ukrainian foreign ministers, Wang Yi and Dmytro Kuleba, China has expressed its desire to be a mediator in the conflict. According to Chinese state media, Kuleba had asked China for “help in finding a diplomatic solution”. A Chinese readout also stated Kuleba as saying that “Ukraine is willing to strengthen communications with China”, suggesting that China might forge a stronger relationship with the nation following the conflict. However, it’s hard to ignore the stakes that China has in the war, as they would benefit from negotiating in Russia’s favour— would the nation really be able to stay neutral as a negotiator or would they be in Putin’s pocket the whole time, thanks to their budding diplomatic relationship?


It remains to be seen exactly how the Russia-Ukraine conflict is going to play out, but it seems likely that China will have to break their policy of zero interference in international affairs. There is no way to remain neutral in this conflict, especially one that holds such high stakes for China and its international relations.


Image - Flickr (UN Geneva)

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