Ukraine’s Just Part of China’s Cold War Paradox

China’s balancing act on Ukraine has appeared hard to impossible to sustain. But anyone hoping that Foreign Minister Wang Yi was ready to signal a policy shift will have been disappointed by his appearance before global media Monday. Wang reaffirmed a “rock solid” relationship with Russia, again declined to term the military action in Ukraine an invasion, and yet reasserted United Nations principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity. China, it seems, is just fine living with the contradictions.

In a call with his Ukrainian counterpart last week, Wang deplored the conflict and expressed concern about the harm to civilians, fueling speculation that China was adjusting its stance in response to global revulsion over Russia’s aggression. His annual press conference during the National People’s Congress in Beijing was more of a return to wolf-warrior mode, with the foreign minister repeatedly casting the U.S. in the role of global villain — in Europe, in the Indo-Pacific, in Taiwan. This was interspersed with softball questions from Communist Party-controlled media that allowed Wang to expound at length on China’s achievements and benign intentions in the world.

Whatever the discomfort of straddling its line on Ukraine, it was never likely that the foreign minister would put any meaningful distance between China and Russia. The loss of face would be too great, barely a month after Chinese President Xi Jinping stood beside a beaming Vladimir Putin on the eve of the Winter Olympics as the two proclaimed a “no limits” partnership. The first question Wang faced from an international journalist at Monday’s briefing focused on why China has been unwilling to use the “I” word, and whether he was concerned that its refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion would diminish Beijing’s international standing. It’s a query that continues to reverberate.

Wang’s reply was that China has made its position clear. He said Beijing has made an independent judgment of the situation, weighing the merits in an objective way. A cool head and a rational mind were needed. The purposes and principles of the UN charter must be upheld, and sovereignty and territorial integrity must be respected. Behind the blandishments, what is clear is that China has decided to cling to its paradox. How the presence of Russian tanks, troops and missiles can fail to constitute a violation of Ukraine’s territorial integrity wasn’t addressed.

In essence, the Chinese position is that the hostility between Ukraine and Russia is the result of years of U.S. meddling. Wang invoked a Chinese proverb: “It takes more than one cold day to freeze three feet of ice.” It’s an argument that, in effect, robs Ukraine — a nation of 44 million people — of agency, reducing it from a sovereign entity capable of deciding its own foreign policy to a mere tool of U.S. objectives. But even if China’s (in fact, Russia’s) viewpoint is accepted, it is still clear who is the aggressor in Ukraine. Only one country invaded the other; on that, the rest of the world can agree.

It wasn’t the only contradiction on display. Wang inveighed against a “cold war” mentality, returning to a theme that has been a regular refrain. On relations with Europe, he said China would support the independence, unity and prosperity of the continent. But “some forces” weren’t happy with how ties were developing and sought to provoke confrontation. No prizes for guessing the culprit.

In reality, if relations with China have worsened recently, then this is not because of U.S. interference but because the European Union — a bloc of sovereign nations with a combined population of almost 450 million people — has a very good understanding of what is happening in Ukraine. China’s attempt to walk a Russia-friendly neutral line is winning it no friends in a region with a strong collective memory of World War II and no moral confusion about who the aggressors are in this war. Trying to suggest that attitudes toward China are souring because of U.S. manipulation similarly takes away agency from European nations and is an example of the cold-war thinking that Beijing claims to oppose.

Likewise in India. Here, Wang said the two countries could reach their goals of development only by “staying independent.” We can surmise that China considers itself independent. The problem of independence, then, is an Indian one. If relations deteriorate, it must be because India has given up its independence — presumably by falling into the clutches of the U.S.-dominated Quad, and what Wang referred to as a Pacific version of NATO. Thus is a nation of more than 1.3 billion people also reduced to a mere instrument of a cold-war rival.

It may be best not to attach too much weight to the view of the world propounded at the NPC, which contains a certain amount of theater and where the foreign minister is speaking to a domestic as well as an international audience. China’s true position will be revealed more through what it does than what it says, though the overriding message is that there is no intention to move away from the friendship with Russia. Get used to the dissonance.

Author: Matthew Brooker, Bloomberg

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