China Nods to Russia’s Interests in Attack on Ukraine
China expressed support for Russia’s interests in Ukraine and stopped short of calling the all-out offensive an invasion as it blamed Washington for fueling tensions with Moscow.
In a call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Thursday, China Foreign Minister Wang Yi repeated China’s position that it respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all nations, but added that Beijing could see “complicated and specific” historical questions at play in Ukraine, according to a readout published by state media in the Beijing evening.
The readout didn’t provide a time for the call, which appeared to take place after the start of Russia’s military invasion around midday Beijing time, when missiles began raining down on military installations across Ukrainian territory.
Mr. Lavrov told Mr. Wang that Russia had been “forced to take necessary measures” to protect its own rights, after the U.S. and North Atlantic Treaty Organization broke a promise not to expand eastward, according to the readout.
“China understands Russia’s legitimate concerns on security issues,” Mr. Wang responded.
The report of the call came after Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying called for restraint from all parties during a daily news briefing in Beijing. “What we are seeing today is not what we wished to see,” she said.
Ms. Hua also characterized the Ukraine situation as complex and put the blame primarily on the U.S., castigating Washington for shipping arms to Ukraine and for hyping up the possibility of war—a charge that the U.S. has denied.
“Those who have set the fire should consider how to put it out with concrete actions, rather than condemning others,” she said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attack on Ukraine puts China in a difficult position. Chinese leader Xi Jinping maintains a close relationship with Mr. Putin. Russia and China have increased military collaboration in recent years, fueled by a shared suspicion of the U.S. But being seen as supporting Mr. Putin’s aggression in Ukraine risks further antagonizing the U.S. and Europe, while also undermining Beijing’s long-professed belief in the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Senior Chinese officials have attempted to tread a tightrope between those two imperatives.
In a phone call with U.S. counterpart Antony Blinken on Tuesday, Mr. Wang proclaimed a more neutral regard for the security concerns of all involved, including Ukraine. “The purposes and principles of the U.N. Charter must be upheld,” he said at the time.
Earlier this month, Mr. Putin traveled to Beijing for a summit meeting with Mr. Xi timed for the start of the Winter Olympics, after which the two men released a joint statement criticizing the U.S.-led world order and the eastward expansion of NATO.
Shortly after the meeting of Messrs. Xi and Putin, China’s top leaders huddled behind closed doors for several days to discuss the Ukraine crisis, according to people familiar with the matter. Among their concerns, these people said, was the risk of financial and trade penalties imposed by Washington in response to any help that Beijing might extend to help Russia evade U.S. sanctions.
Since then, Mr. Xi has said little publicly about the Ukraine situation, telling French President Emmanuel Macron in a Feb. 16 phone call that all parties should resolve the Ukraine crisis through dialogue.
Zhang Jun, China’s ambassador to the United Nations, has been similarly reticent, offering only brief remarks at an otherwise raucous emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council on Thursday.
“We hope that all parties concerned will stay coolheaded and rational,” Mr. Zhang said.
One longtime analyst of China’s security affairs suggested that Beijing was seeking to nurture its growing relationship with Moscow, without isolating itself completely from the West—a strategy it employed when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and invaded Georgia in 2008.
“China’s going to take as neutral a role as possible,” said Tai Ming Cheung, a professor at the University of California, San Diego. “They can wait for the dust to settle and see what’s actually going on.”
Beijing’s reluctance to denounce Russia’s actions against Ukraine might be motivated by a hope that Moscow would stay silent in the event of a potential Chinese military assault one day on Taiwan, the democratically ruled island that Beijing sees as a part its territory, says Derek Grossman, a defense analyst at Rand Corp., a Santa Monica, Calif.-based think tank.
“They see spheres of influence, so what happens there is for Russia to handle, as long as it pays back the favor and allows China a free hand,” Mr. Grossman said.
In Taiwan, which has tightened its relationship with the U.S. under President Tsai Ing-wen, officials have been far less ambiguous in their response to the developments in Eastern Europe, sympathizing with Ukraine in having to fend off an increasingly assertive authoritarian neighbor.
“The current tensions between Ukraine and Russia are due to the Russian side, which unilaterally changed the status quo,” Joanne Ou, a spokeswoman for Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry, said Thursday.
On Wednesday, Ms. Tsai said that she had ordered the island’s military to strengthen combat readiness, surveillance and warning systems in areas around the Taiwan Strait in response to the developments in Ukraine. Ms. Tsai and other officials also warned the public about the danger that “foreign forces” might exploit the Ukraine conflict to carry out cognitive warfare and spread disinformation.
The Chinese embassy in Ukraine urged its citizens in a Thursday statement to remain indoors in the event of rioting. The statement advised those driving long distances to ensure they could refuel and to prominently display Chinese flags on their vehicles.
Authors: Chao Deng, Yoko Kubota, The Wall Street Journal