China says it is keen to play ‘constructive role’ resolving Ukraine crisis, but refuses to condemn Russian invasion

  • Foreign Minister Wang Yi says Beijing is a ‘responsible’ power as Beijing continues its balancing act over the conflict
  • Wang highlights strategic partnership with Moscow at annual press conference, but hits out at US for trying to encircle China

China has offered to play a “constructive role” in mediating the conflict in Ukraine but continues to refuse to condemn the Russian invasion is it tries to maintain its delicate balancing act.

During a carefully choreographed press conference on the sidelines of the National People’s Congress on Monday, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Russia was China’s “most important strategic partner” and criticised the United States for trying to suppress and encircle China.

Wang also described Beijing as a benign “responsible” power in response to growing pressure from Washington and its allies to rein in Russia.

With their relations with Washington and its allies becoming increasingly estranged, China and Russia have edged closer and aligned on many foreign policy issues in recent months. Last month Presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin declared there were “no limits” to the countries’ strategic partnership.

Beijing’s refusal to call out Putin’s aggression, its repeated references to Moscow’s “legitimate security concerns” and its pro-Russian media coverage of the war have been widely perceived as its tacit support for Russia. But Beijing has said it respects Ukraine’s sovereignty, and on Monday Wang insisted “China has remained objective and impartial”.

He repeated Beijing’s opposition to any moves that could add “fuel to the flames” – a veiled swipe at Western sanctions on Moscow – and said the priority should instead be to promote direct talks between Ukraine and Russia while preventing a massive humanitarian crisis.

“China is prepared to continue playing a constructive role to facilitate dialogue for peace and work alongside the international communications when needed to carry out necessary mediation,” he said, falling short of clarifying if China would act as an intermediary in the conflict.

Wang also said China would soon offer humanitarian assistance to Ukraine, but in the same breath he sought to reassure Moscow that their ties “were not subject to interference or provocation by third parties”.

“The friendship between the two peoples is rock-solid, and the prospects for bilateral cooperation are very broad,” he said. “No matter how precarious and challenging the international situation may become, China and Russia will maintain their strategic focus and steadily promote the development of a comprehensive strategic partnership in the new era.”

In response to a question from Russian media straight after a question about Ukraine, Wang offered assurances over China-Russia ties, saying they would not change.

Wang also called on Europe – which is also suspicious of Beijing’s relations with Moscow because of the Ukraine crisis – to maintain autonomy and independence in its strategy with China, and said China’s relations with Russia and with Europe “are two totally different questions”.

Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor with Renmin University in Beijing, said Wang’s remarks did not represent a change in Beijing’s stance.

“China’s stance is unlikely to change, since Western pressure on China is after all limited, though it is rising,” he said.

“China’s position is that it will act with the international community in promoting peace instead of taking the lead itself. But Russia is unlikely to listen even if Beijing tried in this case, so a more proactive role for Beijing might backfire and hurt its image.”

According to Shi, China would at most express reservations about Russia’s invasion indirectly.

Wang Yiwei, another international relations professor at Renmin University, also said China was unlikely to get directly involved with mediating at an early stage of the conflict, considering there may not be much it could do to achieve a ceasefire.

“Putin won’t simply listen to Beijing and give up his strategic goals and ambitions. But in the longer run, if talks need to be arranged for security arrangements in the region, China could play a positive role as it has good ties with Ukraine, Moscow and Europe,” he said.

Hours after Wang’s remarks, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on a visit to the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius that China’s actions were at odds with its avowed support for stability and “respecting sovereignty”.

“From its coercion of Vilnius to its failure thus far to condemn Moscow’s flagrant violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine today and in 2014, Beijing’s actions are speaking much louder than its words,” he said, referring to Russia’s earlier annexation of Crimea.

Blinken voiced support for Lithuania, which has come under severe economic pressure from Beijing after it agreed to allow Taiwan to open a de-facto embassy in Vilnius.

During a phone call with Wang on Saturday, Blinken urged China to act on the Ukraine war and said the world was watching to see which nations stood up for freedom and sovereignty.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell also called on China to play a mediating role in an interview with Spanish newspaper El Mundo last week, saying Beijing was the only option for the role and “there is no alternative”.

For a second year in a row, Wang launched another fierce attack on the US at his televised annual press event, singling it out as the biggest threat to international peace and regional stability. His sharp criticism of the US stood in contrast to his generally modest tone throughout the 100-minute event.

He accused Washington of confronting China with a new cold war and supporting pro-independence forces in Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a part of its own territory.

Wang appeared particularly unhappy with comparisons between Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and China’s threat to use force to seek unification with Taiwan.

He insisted Taiwan was a “fundamentally different” issue from Ukraine because the island is “an inalienable part of China’s territory”.

“Some people, while being vocal about the principle of sovereignty on the Ukraine issue, have kept undermining China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity on the Taiwan question. This is a blatant double standard,” Wang said.

Vladimir Portyakov, deputy director of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences, said it remained to be seen how far the Ukraine crisis would affect the relationship between Moscow and Beijing.

“The history shows that Russia and China are able to reach a satisfactory mutual understanding even in very difficult situations,” he said.

“[However], it is too early to give any final assessment as we need to wait for at least an interim conclusion of the situation, such as the cessation of hostilities, the achievement of certain agreements between Moscow and Kyiv,” he said.

Danil Bochkov, from the Russian International Affairs Council, also said China’s stance was unlikely to undergo major changes.

“I see no practical benefit for Beijing to distance itself from Moscow. This escalation with Ukraine doesn’t directly affect China, because so far it has been extremely cautious in all its official statements. And most likely it will continue to do so,” he said.

Author: Shi Jiangtao, SCMP

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