On Monday, China’s UN envoy urged “all parties” in Ukraine to exercise patience and avoid “fueling tensions,” but stopped short of denouncing the Kremlin’s recognition of independence for two pro-Moscow regions in the country’s east.
As the Ukraine situation worsens, Beijing finds itself in a difficult position, striving to strike a balance between expanding ties with Moscow and its long-standing foreign policy of strongly upholding state sovereignty.
China’s UN Ambassador Zhang Jun stated in a brief address at a UN Security Council emergency meeting Monday night that Beijing supported and encouraged all efforts for a diplomatic solution, and that all issues should be considered on an “equal footing.”
“The current situation in Ukraine is the result of many complex factors. China always makes its own position according to the merits of the matter itself. We believe that all countries should solve international disputes by peaceful means in line with the purposes and principles of the UN Charter,” Zhang said.
The meeting comes as world leaders try desperately to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine, which took a sharp turn when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian forces into two breakaway Moscow-backed territories after recognizing them as independent — a move Western officials fear will serve as a pretext for a larger invasion of Ukraine.
Russia has insisted for weeks that it will not invade Ukraine and defended its activities in the UN Security Council as measures “to safeguard and preserve those people” living in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics (DPR and LPR).
In the face of mounting criticism, Russia has moved to strengthen ties with China, with Russian President Vladimir Putin visiting Beijing on February 4 to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping ahead of the Winter Olympics. The summit ended with the issuing of a broad declaration declaring that the two nations’ relationship had “no bounds” and that there are “no ‘forbidden’ sectors of collaboration.”
In the West, the show of unity has gotten a lot of attention. In strong-worded statements at the Munich Security Conference on Friday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen alluded to Xi and Putin’s recent joint declaration, implying that Beijing and Moscow were seeking to replace the rule of law with “rule of the strongest.”
China has maintained that communication and peaceful settlement are important to it, but analysts say Beijing is cautious of being held responsible by association and is now trying to walk a tightrope.
“They don’t want to get involved and they don’t want to make a very strong statement, (that way) the US will not get angry and Russia (won’t either),” said Alfred Wu.
He went on to say that Beijing would like to avoid Western sanctions aimed at Moscow’s conduct and that it would “be wary of giving the impression that they are openly backing Russia.”
China has previously urged parties engaged in the Ukraine issue to return to the Minsk agreements, which were negotiated during battles in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and 2015, and maintain Kyiv’s authority over the country’s border with Russia.
“Sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of all nations should be recognized and preserved,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at the same conference in Munich on Saturday.
According to David Sacks, a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, this puts China in a “awkward situation” in light of recent events.
“Until the last moment, China emphasized the need to return to the Minsk agreement, and Putin publicly tore that up and essentially ignored China’s proposal for dealing with the crisis,” he said.
In private chats with Sacks, he stated “there is likely a vigorous debate occurring in Beijing regarding the long-term costs of alignment with Russia,” he said.
“China’s embrace of Russia will invite further pushback from the United States and Europe that it wants to avoid.”
Despite the fact that they are not military partners, China and Russia have been presenting a more unified front in the face of what they see as a Western intervention in their domestic affairs, opposing US-led sanctions and frequently voting as a bloc at the United Nations.
This was emphasised in a joint statement issued on February 4 that did not include Ukraine but did endorse Russia’s core demand to the West, with both sides “opposing further NATO enlargement.”
Yu Bin, a political science professor at Wittenberg University in Ohio and a senior scholar at the East China Normal University’s Russian Studies Center in Shanghai, said China shares worries about NATO’s rising presence in the Indo-Pacific.
“As a result of the alliance’s increasingly assertive posture (in Europe and Asia), there is a convergence of Russia and China’s assessments of the US-led alliance,” he added.
According to a brief readout from the State Department, Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with his Chinese colleague Wang on Monday night in the US on events in North Korea and “Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.”
“The Secretary underscored the need to preserve Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the readout said.
Wang voiced “worry” over the situation in Ukraine, according to a readout from the Chinese Foreign Ministry. “China is worried about the development of the situation in Ukraine,” Wang said during the call, adding that “legitimate security concerns of any nation should be acknowledged.”
“The purposes and principles of the UN Charter should be upheld,” Wang said, adding that the current situation in Ukraine is “closely related to the delay” in putting the Minsk Accord into practice.
The US Ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, said that every UN member state has a stake in the growing crisis at Monday’s security council meeting. “This is a moment for collective action,” she said. “There is too much at risk for anyone to sit on the fence.”