As the rhetorical war between the United States and Russia over Ukraine intensifies, one significant participant on the international stage has spoken up as well: China.
Beijing has urged for calm on both sides and the end of the Cold War mentality in recent days, while also expressing its sympathy for Moscow’s worries.
It would seem self-evident that China would support Russia, a long-time partner and erstwhile Communist comrade. But there’s more to how and why it’s doing this than just their background.
China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, this week described Russia’s security worries as “legitimate,” adding they should be “taken seriously and addressed.”
On Monday, China’s ambassador to the United Nations, Zhang Jun, went even further, stating categorically that China disagrees with US accusations that Russia is a threat to international peace. He also chastised the US for calling a UN Security Council meeting, comparing it to “megaphone diplomacy” that was “unsuitable” for negotiations.
China’s official response to the situation has been cautious and nuanced, stopping short of open backing for Russia’s use of military force against its former Soviet neighbour.
State-run media outlets, on the other hand, have been more harsh in their coverage of the situation. The Ukraine issue has been depicted as yet another example of the West’s shortcomings, coming at a time when anti-Western sentiment is on the rise in China.
According to them, it is the US-led Nato that is acting like a bully by refusing to accept other countries’ sovereign rights to defend their territory, such as Russia and China.
According to the media newspaper, “the increasingly tighter partnership and tie between China and Russia [is] the last defence that safeguards the world order,” while state news agency Xinhua reported that the US was trying to “divert domestic attention” and “revive its influence over Europe.”
Some of this rhetoric has been broadcast in various languages on Twitter (which is blocked in China) in an attempt to affect how the US and Nato are perceived by the rest of the globe, according to Brookings Institution policy director Jessica Brandt.
“I believe the purpose here is to damage the credibility and attraction of liberal institutions, as well as to discredit open media,” she tells the BBC, adding that this is an example of how Beijing “frequently amplifies Kremlin talking points on Ukraine” when it fits its interests.
China and Russia are now closer than they have been since the days of Stalin and Mao, according to some observers.
The 2014 Ukrainian Crimea conflict was perceived as pulling Russia even closer to China, which offered Moscow economic and diplomatic support in the face of international isolation.
The relationship has grown stronger since then. For years, China has been Russia’s most important trading partner, with bilateral trade reaching a new high of $147 billion last year. Last year, the two countries signed a roadmap for deeper military cooperation and more joint military exercises.
Vladimir Putin will fly to Beijing on Friday to attend the Winter Olympics at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping. There, the two will hold a keenly awaited meeting, with Mr Putin becoming the first world leader to see Mr Xi in person in the last two years. Since the outbreak, the Chinese leader has declined to go overseas and has only met a few foreigners.
But, more importantly, both countries’ relations with the West are currently strained.
According to Chris Miller, assistant professor of international history at Tufts University, “Beijing and Moscow sense a shared purpose in pushing back against the US and Europe and gaining a larger role for themselves in international affairs.”
Experts believe that if the war escalates and Western sanctions are imposed on Russia, China would come to Russia’s economic help, just as it has in the past. This might include alternate payment systems, loans to Russian banks and businesses, increased oil purchases from Russia, or open rejection of US export regulations.
All of this, however, would come at a tremendous financial cost to China, which is one reason why experts believe that, for the time being, Beijing will only go as far as mirroring Moscow’s position. According to Dr. Miller, “rhetorical backing for Russia is a low-cost move for Beijing.”
A military battle in Ukraine would cause the United States to become preoccupied, which would undoubtedly benefit China. Many observers, though, trust Beijing when it claims it doesn’t want to go to war.
China is currently attempting to normalise relations with the United States, according to Bonnie Glaser, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Asia programme. She told the BBC that if Beijing lends greater backing to Moscow, it “may cause more issues with the US, including a clearer democracy vs autocracy division.”
According to political scientist Minxin Pei, Beijing is likely “hedging its bets” in the issue because it is cautious of Moscow’s genuine intentions. Furthermore, bolstering Russia’s support may enrage the EU, China’s second-largest economic partner, resulting in a “European backlash.”
Prof. Pei claims that this could manifest itself in support for Taiwan, an issue that has surfaced in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.
‘Taiwan is not Ukraine,’ says the author.
The Ukraine war is being keenly watched by some in the United States, as well as Chinese communities around the world, as a potential test of US loyalty to its allies.
Many people wonder if the United States would engage militarily if Russia invaded Ukraine, and if it would do the same if China attempted to retake Taiwan, an island that considers itself an independent republic and counts the United States as its most powerful ally.