China Adjusts, and Readjusts, Its Embrace of Russia in Ukraine Crisis

China’s leader Xi Jinping on Friday called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to negotiate with Ukraine, the most recent twist as Beijing modulates its embrace of Russia.

Beijing has been flailing to adjust its position on the Ukraine situation ever since Mr. Xi signed on to an extraordinary solidarity statement with Mr. Putin early this month, a decision influenced by a Chinese foreign-policy establishment stuck in a belief that Mr. Putin wasn’t out for war.

“China supports Russia and Ukraine to resolve issues through negotiations,” Mr. Xi told Mr. Putin in a phone call, while pledging to safeguard the international system with the United Nations at its core, China’s state media reported. Mr. Putin told the Chinese leader he was prepared for talks with Ukraine based on “signals just received from Kyiv,” according to a Kremlin readout of the call.

Late Friday, China abstained from voting on a U.S.-drafted U.N. Security Council resolution aimed at ending the war in Ukraine.

For weeks, China’s foreign-policy establishment dismissed a steady stream of warnings from the U.S. and its European allies about a pending Russian invasion, and instead blamed Washington for hyping the Russian threats.

Now, China is trying to regain its balance after making a calculation that could seriously undermine a position it has tried to build for itself as a global leader and advocate for developing nations.

As late as this week, with signs looming of an impending invasion, when a well-connected foreign-policy scholar in China gave a talk to a group of worried Chinese investors and analysts, he titled the speech “A War That Won’t Happen.”

“We see little chance of Russia unilaterally declaring war on Ukraine,” Shen Yi, a professor of international relations at Shanghai’s Fudan University who advises the government, said at the Tuesday teleconference held by a securities firm, according to people who dialed into the call.

Less than 48 hours later, Mr. Putin launched a full-scale attack on Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin, left, and Xi Jinping meet in Beijing on Feb. 4.Photographer: Alexei Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images


The persistent brushing off of the invasion risks, say people with knowledge of Beijing’s inner workings, went into Mr. Xi’s calculus in signing on to a deeper partnership with Russia on Feb. 4, the opening day of the Beijing Winter Olympics.

In the days leading up to Mr. Putin’s visit to Beijing, policy advice to China’s top leadership focused on how the partnership could give China leverage over the U.S. but played down or even outright dismissed the likelihood of a Russian invasion of Ukraine, according to people close to Beijing’s foreign-policy establishment.

“Whoever gives policy recommendations in China wants to cater to what the top leader wants to hear,” said Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center, a Washington-based think tank. “They feed information into that direction.”

That led to Beijing dismissing U.S. warnings to the global community, based on intelligence that Mr. Putin wasn’t bluffing about his intentions to invade.

Mr. Shen of Fudan, who has advised China’s top leaders on issues such as cybersecurity, didn’t respond to questions. China’s Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to questions.

Beijing hasn’t publicly termed Russia’s broad-scale attack on Ukraine an invasion; the Russian Embassy in Beijing.


A result of Beijing’s failure to anticipate Mr. Putin’s actions: China’s Embassy in Kyiv didn’t announce plans to evacuate Chinese nationals from the Eastern European country until after Russian troops moved in on Thursday.

In recent years, China has pursued a multilateral agenda to draw other nations into its economic orbit, including financing projects in both Russia and Ukraine as part of Mr. Xi’s Belt and Road initiative. It has stepped up efforts to work through international organizations including the World Trade Organization and the U.N. It has also offered its Covid-19 vaccines to countries in Africa and Southeast Asia in a bid to position itself as a benevolent world power.

By tilting toward Russia during the Ukraine crisis, it has instead painted itself as an enabler of a country that is now being universally condemned.

Since the invasion, China has been stuck in an increasingly difficult diplomatic straddle. It needs to honor its partnership with Russia—one that both sides a few weeks ago said has “no limits”—while not abandoning its commitment to foreign-policy principles around noninterference, which would require it to unequivocally condemn the Russian assault. Adding to its balancing act is a desire to prevent its relations with the U.S. and Europe from going completely off the rails.

“They are in a difficult spot because they are attempting both rhetorically and substantively to balance these goals that, quite simply, can’t be reconciled,” said Evan Feigenbaum, vice president for studies at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Beijing hasn’t publicly termed Russia’s broad-scale attack on Ukraine an invasion.
Mr. Xi’s strategic decision to veer closer to Moscow has been a long time coming. Upon rising to power in late 2012, the top Chinese leader tried to build up ties with Washington, instructing bureaucrats, “We have a thousand reasons to get the China-U.S. relationship right, and not one reason to spoil it.”

A brutal trade war with the Trump administration, which sought to hold Beijing accountable for its unfair trade practices, chipped away at the foundation of the relations. Then heightened tensions with the Biden administration, in areas from human rights to Beijing’s sovereignty claims, further soured Mr. Xi on Washington.

The U.S.-centric foreign-policy guideline Mr. Xi set a decade ago has now been replaced with one centered around confronting the U.S., driven by an agenda it shares with Mr. Putin.

What Mr. Putin has gotten out of it is at least the appearance of a powerful supporter in China.

For China, so far, any benefits are murkier. The Russian leader, whom many in China have dubbed “Putin the Great,” helped China save face at the opening of the Beijing Olympics. With major Western powers staging a boycott of the Games, Mr. Putin was Mr. Xi’s only true VIP guest.

In return, Mr. Putin sought China’s support for Russia’s opposition to any expansion by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a key demand in Moscow’s standoff with the U.S.-led coalition over Ukraine.

In meeting with Mr. Xi before attending the opening ceremony of the Olympics, say the people close to Beijing’s foreign-policy establishment, the Russian leader shared his grievances against the U.S.—complaints they say deeply resonated with a Chinese leader who has accused Washington of trying to build cliques to hurt China. But Mr. Putin left his plans for Ukraine out of the conversation, the people said.

The two leaders then issued an extraordinary joint declaration that brought the China-Russia relationship to its closest point since the early years of the Cold War after World War II. Presenting a united front against the U.S.-led West, its statement didn’t mention Ukraine. After Mr. Putin left, China’s top leaders huddled behind closed doors for days trying to form a response to the brewing Ukraine crisis.

In recent days, Beijing’s response has been vacillating between more clearly opposing an invasion and providing moral support for Moscow’s security concerns, all the while continuing to blame the U.S. and its allies for hyping the threats from Russia.

“For now, the strategy is, ‘all talk, little action,’” said one of the people close to Beijing’s foreign-policy establishment. Beijing has taken some modest steps to help Russia. On Thursday, it lifted restrictions on Russian wheat imports that had been in place for decades.

Author: Lingling Wei, The Wall Street Journal

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