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In a diplomatic charade to justify a Russian invasion, Syria and Nicaragua did President Vladimir Putin’s bidding and supported his recognition of two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine.
In fact, Putin’s war against Ukraine is putting Beijing in a very awkward position.
On the one hand, the Chinese are happy to issue vague pro-Kremlin statements, slamming NATO and Washington, while grumbling about Western aggression and the dangers of new Cold War faultlines.
But the fundamental geopolitical dynamics underlying Putin’s invasion of Ukraine are anathema to sovereignty-obsessed Beijing. The idea that a minority area or ethnic group could simply claim independence and be recognized by a sympathetic nuclear superpower is China’s nightmare, given that it is perennially worried about dissent in regions such as Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong. This is not the way Beijing wants international diplomacy to be conducted.
China also doesn’t want its growing strategic ties with Putin to burn its business relations with rich Western economies that have proved unexpectedly unanimous in their opposition to Putin’s campaign in Ukraine. Putin may have been a guest of honor at the Winter Olympics in Beijing, but he’s now something of a headache.
In the run-up to Putin’s bombshell recognition of the separatist Luhansk and Donetsk People’s Republics on Monday night, China and Russia had certainly been building bridges. On February 4, Putin reached a joint statement on Sino-Russian strategy in international relations with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, during his visit to the largely boycotted Winter Olympics.
That sounded alarm bells in Western Europe. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said at the Munich Security Conference that Moscow and Beijing were seeking “a new era” and were looking to replace “the 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 stick close to the Russians. The state-run Global Times tabloid blamed the U.S. for events in Ukraine, saying Washington “finally forced Russia to try to realize its security demands in such a way.”
China’s government, however, knows its calculus with Russia is problematic. Beijing has spent years steering round criticism of its own human rights record and avoiding public involvement in international feuds 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 on how far Beijing’s commitment to sovereignty and territorial integrity went.
“Ukraine is no exception,” he assured the audience via video call.
Evan Feigenbaum, vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said Beijing’s competing international goals put it in a “very difficult spot” over Ukraine.
“The Chinese are attempting to balance three goals 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 sanctions from the U.S. and EU,” said Feigenbaum, who was formerly a U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state.
He added: “Since they are not likely to be able to have all three simultaneously, they will have to jettison one or another of these goals and it’s likely that they will straddle on the principles while power politics and practical considerations remain.”
China — whose repeated calls for dialogue and restraint have fallen on deaf ears in the Kremlin — has been wary of siding too closely with Russian military adventurism in the past. China certainly did not follow Venezuela, Nicaragua, Nauru and Syria in recognizing the independence from Georgia of South Ossetia and Abkhazia after a war in 2008.
Naturally, much of the thinking in Beijing boils down to the not-perfectly-comparable topic of Taiwan.
Unavoidably, the question came up at the Chinese foreign ministry press briefing just a day after Putin’s proclamation.
“There’s only one China in the world and Taiwan is an inseparable part of Chinese territory,” said the Chinese ministry spokesman, Wang Wenbin. He declined to say directly whether Donbass should be treated as an inseparable part of Ukraine, while adding: “China is closely monitoring the evolving situation in Ukraine. China’s position on the Ukraine issue is consistent. The legitimate security concerns of any country should be respected, and the purposes and principles of the U.N. Charter should be jointly upheld.”
That’s hardly a ringing endorsement of Putin when it comes to international law.
In a peculiar twist, the Global Times took to Twitter to confront U.K. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss over the support from the G7 group of leading economies for Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Surreally describing Taiwan as “China’s Donetsk,” the Global Times quipped that it hoped it could bank on G7 support when the time came to “eradicate” secessionists in Taiwan.
That may be China’s view of what needs to happen to secessionists. It’s just not Putin’s.
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Stuart Lau writes POLITICO’s China Direct newsletter exploring Europe’s diplomatic and commercial relationship with China. Sign up here for expert reporting and analysis every week in your inbox.