Putin and Xi’s ‘no limits’ friendship is put to the test in Ukraine

February 25, 2022, 2:50 PM UTC

On Feb. 4, Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomed his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, to Beijing’s Diaoyutai State Guesthouse with great fanfare. The two leaders inked a flurry of trade and energy deals, lunched together, and posed for photos before their nations’ flags. In the evening, Xi feted the Russian leader as his guest of honor at the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympic Games. A sweeping joint statement issued at the end of the summit proclaimed that the friendship between Russia and China “has no limits.

Xi may want to rethink that declaration now that Russian missiles are raining down on Kyiv.

Xi has embraced Putin as an increasingly important strategic partner in recent years as China’s relations with the United States have soured. China, like Russia, is no fan of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the Western security alliance whose members increasingly identify China as a threat. At the Feb. 4 summit, China joined Russia in decrying NATO as a Cold War relic and blamed U.S. support for expanding the pact for needlessly aggravating Russian security concerns.

And yet, when it comes to Ukraine, China’s interests and Russia’s are not aligned. Putin’s decision to attack his Western neighbor creates new headaches for Xi and highlights the complex—and in many ways contradictory—nature of China’s foreign policy.

“Beijing’s global aspirations are now clashing with its desire to remain selectively ambiguous and aloof,” write Jude Blanchette and Bonny Lin in Foreign Affairs. “Although Chinese leaders may not recognize it, their country’s closer alignment with Russia is far from prudent.”

China could soften the impact of Western sanctions against Russia by purchasing embargoed Russian oil and gas or by extending credit to Russian borrowers via state-controlled policy lenders such as the China Development Bank or the Export-Import Bank of China. China might also come to Russia’s defense in international forums like the United Nations.

But siding, even tacitly, with Putin on Ukraine will strain China’s already fraying relations with Europe, invite new reprisals from the U.S., risk alienating nonaligned countries like India, and tarnish China’s image as a responsible, peace-loving global power.

China’s refusal to condemn Russia’s attack on a smaller neighbor recognized as sovereign and independent by the rest of the world calls into question Beijing’s oft-stated assertion that it follows a principle of noninterference in its foreign policy. Some analysts argue that, in turning a blind eye to Russia’s Ukraine invasion, China also risks undermining its own claim to sovereignty over Taiwan or territories in the South China [hotlink]Sea.[/hotlink]

Ukraine is an important trade partner for China with trade between the two nations—including iron ore, corn, and sunflower oil from Ukraine and consumer goods and machinery from China—totaling $19 billion last year. Ukraine has been an enthusiastic supporter of the Belt and Road Initiative, Xi’s signature policy push to create a network of new trade and transit links between China and Europe.

In January, Xi formally congratulated Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries. “China-Ukraine relations have always maintained a sound and stable development momentum,” Xi told Zelenskyy, according to China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “The two sides enjoy deepening political mutual trust, fruitful cooperation in various fields, and even closer people-to-people and cultural exchanges, which have improved the well-being of the two peoples.”

The divergent impulses of China’s foreign policy are reflected in Beijing’s shifting diplomatic rhetoric regarding Russia and Ukraine in recent weeks. Xi’s Feb. 4 meeting with Putin—the only head of state he has met with in two years—seemed to signal a significant deepening in China’s relationship with Russia. The joint statement pledged the two countries would have “no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation.”

That set off alarm bells in Washington and Brussels. The Wall Street Journal reports that senior officials in the U.S. and Europe “saw the entente as one of the clearest signals yet that Beijing intends to join forces with Moscow to reshape the global order closer to their two countries’ authoritarian vision.”

By mid-February, China’s top diplomats seemed to back away from the Feb. 4 statement, abandoning their strident defense of Russia in favor of a less confrontational position emphasizing the importance of resolving the Ukraine crisis through diplomatic channels.

In a Feb. 16 call with French President Emmanuel Macron, Xi advocated a diplomatic solution to the looming crisis. “All parties concerned should adhere to the general direction of political settlement, make full use of multilateral platforms, and seek a comprehensive solution to the Ukrainian issue through dialogue and consultation,” he said.

Three days later, in a video appearance before the Munich Security Conference, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed the importance of respecting national borders. “The sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of any country should be respected and safeguarded,” he said. “Ukraine is no exception.”

The Wall Street Journal, citing Chinese diplomats and government advisers, reports that shift in tone followed days of closed-door deliberations by China’s senior leaders “and reflects Beijing’s desire to avoid an even more adversarial relationship with Washington.”

Within days, however, China’s official messaging seemed to revert back again to a more pro-Russian line. At a Thursday press briefing, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying pointedly rejected the use of the word “invasion” to characterize Russian movement in Ukraine, deeming it, instead, a “special military operation.”

That prompted President Biden in Washington to suggest China’s leaders have blood on their hands. “Any nation that countenances Russia’s naked aggression against Ukraine will be stained by association,” Biden said, without naming China.

At a later press briefing, White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki, noting that Secretary of State Antony Blinken had spoken with Wang about Ukraine, said, “This is really a moment for China, for any country, about what side of history they want to stand on here.”

Xi may still be weighing his options. On Friday, amid reports that Russian troops had entered Kyiv, CCTV reported that Xi and Putin spoke by phone. The Chinese president, reportedly, encouraged Russia to resolve the crisis through dialogue.

It’s unclear whether Putin told Xi in their Feb. 4 meeting of his plans to attack Ukraine. Asked about that at Thursday’s briefing, Hua said Russia didn’t need to seek China’s consent.

Equally unclear is how China will vote on a draft resolution expected to be put before the 15-member United Nations Security Council Friday condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and demanding an immediate, unconditional withdrawal. The U.S.-drafted measure is set to fail because Russia—along with the U.S., China, France, and Britain—is one of the five council members with veto powers.

In 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region, the U.S. drafted a resolution condemning Moscow’s actions. Thirteen countries voted in favor. Russia cast a veto, and China abstained.

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