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In a diplomatic charade to justify a Russian invasion, Syria and Nicaragua obeyed President Vladimir Putin’s orders and backed his recognition of two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine.
China did not.
In fact, Putin’s war against Ukraine puts Beijing in a very delicate position.
On the one hand, the Chinese are content to issue vague pro-Kremlin statements, criticizing NATO and Washington, while grumbling about Western aggression and the dangers of new Cold War fault lines.
But the fundamental geopolitical dynamics underlying Putin’s invasion of Ukraine are anathema to sovereignty-obsessed Beijing. The idea that a minority region or ethnic group can simply claim independence and be recognized by a sympathetic nuclear superpower is China’s nightmare, given that it is constantly concerned about dissent in places like Tibet. , Xinjiang and Hong Kong. This is not how Beijing wants international diplomacy to be conducted.
Nor does China want its growing strategic ties with Putin to burn its trade relations with wealthy Western economies that have been surprisingly unanimous in their opposition to Putin’s campaign in Ukraine. Putin may have been the guest of honor at the Beijing Winter Olympics, but now he’s a headache.
In the run-up to Putin’s explosive recognition of the breakaway People’s Republics of Lugansk and Donetsk on Monday night, China and Russia had certainly been building bridges. On Feb. 4, Putin reached a joint statement on China-Russia strategy in international relations with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, during his visit to the widely boycotted Winter Olympics.
This sounded the alarm in Western Europe. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told the Munich security conference that Moscow and Beijing were looking for “a new era” and seeking to replace “existing international rules”. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell called it a “revisionist manifesto”.
In terms of pugnacious public rhetoric, China is also trying to stay close to the Russians. The official Global Times tabloid blamed the United States for the events in Ukraine, saying that Washington “ultimately forced Russia to try to fulfill its security demands in this way”.
The Chinese government, however, knows that its reckoning with Russia is problematic. Beijing has spent years criticizing its own human rights record and avoiding public involvement in international disputes by insisting on the supremacy of national sovereignty.
At the Munich Security Conference, days before Putin’s recognition of the Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was pressed to say how far Beijing’s commitment to sovereignty and territorial integrity.
“Ukraine is no exception,” he assured the audience via video call.
Evan Feigenbaum, vice president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Beijing’s competing international goals put it in a “very difficult position” with Ukraine.
“The Chinese are trying to balance three objectives that cannot be reconciled: a strategic relationship with Russia; commitment to long-standing foreign policy principles around “non-interference”; and a desire to minimize collateral damage to Chinese interests from economic turmoil and potential secondary US and EU sanctions,” said Feigenbaum, who previously served as US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State.
He added: “Since they probably won’t be able to have all three simultaneously, they will have to drop one or the other of these goals and it is likely that they will overlap principles while power politics and practical considerations will remain.”
China – whose repeated pleas for dialogue and restraint have fallen on deaf ears in the Kremlin – has been reluctant to side too closely with Russian military adventurism in the past. China certainly did not follow Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru and Syria in recognizing Georgia’s independence from South Ossetia and Abkhazia after a war in 2008.
Naturally, much of the thinking in Beijing boils down to the not entirely comparable topic of Taiwan.
Inevitably, the issue was raised at the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s press conference just a day after Putin’s proclamation.
“There is only one China in the world, and Taiwan is an inseparable part of Chinese territory,” Chinese ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said. He declined to say directly whether Donbass should be treated as an inseparable part of Ukraine, but added, “China is closely monitoring developments in Ukraine. China’s position on the Ukraine issue is consistent. The legitimate security concerns of any country must be respected, and the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations must be jointly upheld.
This is hardly a ringing endorsement of Putin when it comes to international law.
In a peculiar twist, the Global Times caught on Twitter to confront British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss over the support of the G7 group of major economies for Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Describing surreal Taiwan as “China’s Donetsk”, the Global Times joked that it hoped to count on the support of the G7 when the time came to “eradicate” secessionists in Taiwan.
This may be China’s view of what should happen to secessionists. It’s just not Putin’s.