Is China Breaking With Russia Over Ukraine?


China’s stance has gradually changed since the start of the Russian incursion, but the alliance with Moscow is too significant for Beijing to truly turn its back on its ally.

The most keenly followed event during Chinese President Xi Jinping’s first international trip since January 2020 was not his encounters with representatives of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, his hosts. The focus of the world’s attention was instead on his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Samarkand, which took place in conjunction with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit. This was their first face-to-face encounter since Russia’s extensive invasion of Ukraine began on February 24.
Putin attended the Winter Olympic Games Opening Ceremony on February 4 in Beijing, where Xi and Putin last exchanged handshakes. “Friendship between the two States has no limitations,” they proclaimed in their joint statement at the time.
Since the first week of February, a lot has changed. The battle is not going well for Moscow, and Russia is currently at war with Ukraine after moving large numbers of troops across the border just three weeks after their meeting in Beijing. Meanwhile, China’s apparent backing for Putin is severely harming Beijing’s reputation in Europe. Russia is currently subject to unprecedented sanctions from the U.S., European Union, Japan, Australia, and others.
How has Xi’s rhetoric changed in his discussions with Putin in light of this?
One thing has been constant: Xi and Putin continue to present their nations as close allies. According to a readout from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Xi said to Putin, “China will work with Russia to fulfill their responsibilities as major countries and play a leading role in injecting stability into a world of change and disorder in the face of changes of the world, of our times, and of history. Putin and Xi are working together to replace the American-led global system with a new one that is more “democratic” and “fair,” as my colleague Catherine Putz pointed out. This fundamental interest has not altered, and the Chinese account of the conference makes no clear mention of Chinese anger with Russia.

But what is left unsaid is also instructive. The explicit references to cooperation between China and Russia in reshaping the current international system, or, as Xi put it in his June 15 phone chat with Putin, “the evolution of the international order and global governance towards a more just and rational direction,” have vanished. Undoubtedly, China still wants to change how the world order develops, but it has chosen not to make a big deal out of the fact that it is collaborating with Russia to accomplish it (at least for now).
In light of this, we can interpret Xi’s statement that “China will work with Russia to fulfill their responsibilities as major countries and play a leading role in injecting stability into a world of change and disorder” as a subtly critical statement. Xi may be inferring that Russia is not currently doing so or making a significant contribution to global stability. Of course, that is disputed, but it is noteworthy that Xi this time avoided specifically referencing Beijing’s and Moscow’s collaborative initiatives to restructure the global order to their preferences.
In a similar spirit, there is not much discussion of China and Russia’s strategic partnership during the summit on September 15. In this week’s meeting, Xi pointedly emphasized more anodyne fields of cooperation, like sports exchanges and people-to-people relations. While Xi acknowledges “effective strategic communication” between the two, that is a qualitative shift from his promise back in June that “China is willing to work with Russia to continue… deepening their strategic coordination.” He made clear that China only wants to “deepen practice cooperation” in the following areas: “trade, agriculture, connectivity, and other areas,” leaving “other areas” up to the reader’s imagination.
This statement from their meeting on February 4: “China and Russia have kept committed to enhancing strategic coordination of mutual assistance… The two nations have never and will never waver in this choice” contrasts sharply with the deafening quiet on strategic cooperation.
Although not specifically mentioning Ukraine, Xi did say that “China will work with Russia to provide strong mutual support on matters concerning each other’s vital interests.” However, Taiwan and the One China Principle are the only “core interests” that are specifically mentioned, and Russia reiterates that it is “firmly committed to the One China principle and condemns the provocative moves by individual countries on issues concerning China’s core interests,” clearly alluding to recent U.S. engagement with Taiwan. China has not responded in a similar manner, and there are no overt references to “Russia’s genuine security concerns” that have come up in past discussions.
Contrarily, according to the Russian summary of the Putin-Xi conversation, Putin told Xi, “We understand your inquiries and your concerns in this respect,” before referring to China’s “balanced approach in connection with the Ukraine problem.”
It is significant that Putin acknowledged that China has expressed “questions and worries” about the conflict in Ukraine. But what’s equally noteworthy is that China herself made no mention of such worries. Instead, China chooses to act as if there isn’t a conflict going on. In fact, the official readout from the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs made no mention of Ukraine.
Contrarily, China’s Foreign Ministry said in the readout of the June 15 Putin-Xi chat that “the two leaders of state also shared opinions on the Ukraine problem. In his remarks, Xi underlined that China has always independently appraised the situation in light of the historical context and the merits of the relevant questions and actively promoted world peace and the stability of the international economic system.
The day after the invasion started, on February 25, Xi called Putin and said, “China decides its position about the Ukrainian issue on its own merits. It is crucial to reject Cold War thinking, accept and take seriously everyone’s realistic security concerns, and negotiate a fair, efficient, and long-lasting European security system.
Together, China has gently pulled away from its already nuanced support for Russia’s position from February to June and now to September. The calls also reveal a recurring pattern: although China is becoming increasingly reluctant to do the same when it comes to Ukraine, Russia is eager and prepared to expressly denounce U.S. activities on Taiwan, the first of China’s “core interests.” The perception is that while China is uncommitted, Russia has China’s best interests at heart.

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By: Miss Cherry May Timbol – Independent Reporter

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