There is a tiny sliver of daylight between Beijing and Moscow when it comes to talking about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but it’s just a sliver.
Article by Joe Webster for SupChina - March 10, 2022
As China tries to square a circle in Ukraine, it will continue to navigate between unpalatable choices. Beijing prizes its security ties with Russia but also seeks to safeguard its economic and technological ties to Europe and the rest of the West. These contradictory interests remain unresolved, but it is increasingly evident that Beijing will tilt to Vladimir Putin even as it seeks to maintain some rhetorical separation.
Economic support for Moscow
China will double the permitted trading range between its currency and Russia’s ruble, allowing the currency cross to trade 10% in either direction of a daily midpoint set by the People’s Bank of China, up from 5% previously. This will “help bolster trade between the two countries,” reports the Financial Times.
Chinese state-owned enterprises are also reportedly considering stakes in Russian commodity firms.
Sanctions and optics will constrain bilateral trade and investment ties, however, and Beijing will likely seek to wait at least several months before inking further energy megadeals.
Political support for Moscow
The Chinese state is largely aligning with the Kremlin, repeating its rhetoric, and even adopting Russian talking points:
Foreign Minister Wáng Yì 王毅 said that the two sides are “each other’s most important close neighbors and strategic partners. Our relationship is one of the most crucial bilateral relations in the world.”
The Communist Party newspaper the People’s Daily is using its Twitter account to reinforce messaging from the Kremlin and the Russian Defense Ministry; state news agency Xinhua has also taken to reciting Putin’s claims that the United States is an “empire of lies” (谎言帝国).
Xi called Putin on February 25, the day after the invasion, but has not yet called his Ukrainian counterpart.
Chemical weapons conspiracies: Beijing is also amplifying the Kremlin’s false claims surrounding alleged U.S. biological and chemical weapons in Ukraine. Zhào Lìjiān 赵立坚, the verbally aggressive MFA spokesperson, who criticized EU, U.S., and U.K. sanctions against Russia, also stated:
U.S. biological labs in Ukraine have indeed attracted much attention. According to reports, a large quantity of dangerous viruses are stored in these facilities. Russia has found during its military operations that the U.S. uses these facilities to conduct bio-military plans.
The White House warned that Russia may “possibly use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine, or to create a false flag operation using them.”
If Putin employs chemical weapons or mass violence against civilians, how might the P.R.C. respond? If its behavior in Syria proves instructive, Beijing will verbally condemn the use of violence against civilians but claim, plausibly or not, that Putin’s forces did not conduct the attacks.
Distancing in degrees?
While Beijing is generally aligning itself with Moscow, it will nevertheless seek to preserve some distance. As Ryan Hass of Brookings notes, China’s policy in the crisis exists along a spectrum and is not an either/or binary.
In his call with President Macron and Chancellor Scholz, Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 stressed that “the current situation in Ukraine is worrisome, and the Chinese side is deeply grieved by the outbreak of war again on the European continent. China maintains that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries must be respected.”
Chinese state media has also referred to the invasion as a conflagration or war 战火, its strongest language to date.
‘Overwhelming majority’ of Chinese citizens reportedly evacuated
The Chinese MFA reported that the “overwhelming majority” of Chinese citizens in Ukraine has been evacuated.
The invasion has not led to any known loss of life by Chinese nationals, although a Chinese man was wounded trying to leave Ukraine.
The Global Times disputed a Ukrainian report from last Friday that four Chinese students died after their dormitory was fired upon by Russian troops.
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