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With Russia, But Not Quite: China and the Ukraine War

As Russia continues its war in Ukraine, the world is watching China. The country with the largest population in the world is considered a pillar of Moscow. However, support for Russian propaganda does not mean diplomatic support.

For the past almost twenty days, the West has called on China to mediate a ceasefire in Ukraine. And while the Asian side showed no signs of wanting to do so, President Xi Jinping took the first step towards diplomatic intervention last Tuesday.

This happened at the conference through a video meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. The president described the situation as alarming and called for “maximum restraint” and joint support from the three countries for peace talks between Ukraine and Russia.

This position seemed encouraging to many people. However, if we look at the official positions of China so far, we can see that each of them is contrary to the previous one. At the same time, the media environment in China is much more supportive of one country – Russia.

This raises a number of questions in the West, the most important of which is what will be the final role that China will play in the conflict.

History of China’s reactions:

  • February 4 – A long-standing partnership between Russia and China is reaffirmed in a “no-limit” friendship statement. China backs Russia in its call for NATO to stop expanding;
    February 24 – The Russian invasion of Ukraine begins, just days after the end of the Beijing Winter Olympics;
  • March 2 – A UN General Assembly vote overwhelmingly on a resolution condemning Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and urging the Kremlin to immediately cease fire. China refrained;
  • March 5 – Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmitry Kuleba says he has spoken with Chinese Foreign Minister and is convinced that China has an interest in ending the conflict;
  • March 7 – At a news conference, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China was ready to mediate for peace, but stressed that Beijing’s ties with Moscow were “strong” and that opportunities for co-operation were wide;
  • March 8 – President Xi Jinping says China wants to play an active role in mediating the conflict during a video interview with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz;
  • March 9 – Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Liang argues that US-led NATO action has brought tensions in Ukraine to a “turning point”;
  • March 10 – Foreign Minister Wang Yi says China hopes the war will end as soon as possible. This is the first time China has called a war what is happening in Ukraine.

Judging by last week’s events, Beijing seems to be signaling solidarity with Ukraine. However, China has repeatedly ruled that sanctions against Russia are illegal, with Chinese officials pointing to NATO’s eastward expansion as the root cause of the conflict, a thesis that is in line with Russia’s.

Also, the position of the Beijing government seems far more biased on the territory of the country itself, judging by the theses promoted by the Chinese media.

Russian propaganda in China

Since the beginning of the war, strict Chinese censorship has increasingly leaned towards Russian propaganda. The Chinese media often omit details of Russian attacks on civilians and do not cover Moscow’s condemnation of the international community. At the same time, Russian state media have been quoted in China as spreading the theses of the Russian authorities, often without any objection or fact-checking.

On March 9, for example, the official Chinese government newspaper Zhenmin Zhibao (People’s Daily) published a video on the local social network Weibo in which Russia provides humanitarian aid to Ukrainians in the suburbs of Kharkiv. Ukraine’s second largest city is surrounded by Russian troops, and local officials say a number of residential areas have been bombed since the start of the war.

Another example is the Chinese television Phoenix, which broadcast several reports of its correspondent from Moscow with Russian troops outside Mariupol. It is a strategic port city that has suffered a number of severe attacks, including on civilians. A mosque was hit there on Saturday as more than 80 people hid while President Volodymyr Zelensky and local authorities said the mayor had been abducted.

In a recent report, a Chinese television correspondent spoke to Russian troops about their steady progress, as well as civilians who are said to welcome the presence of Russian forces.

According to Jessica Brand, director of the Brookings Institution, part of this rhetoric is spreading in many Twitter languages banned in China, in an attempt to change the way the rest of the world views the United States and NATO.

“I think the goal is to undermine the soft power of the United States, to undermine the trust and attractiveness of liberal institutions, and to discredit free media,” Brand told the BBC.

In the same way, according to her, Beijing “regularly expands the Kremlin’s strongholds for Ukraine” when it is in its interest.

From propaganda to conspiracy

China supports not only the Russian version of military action in Ukraine, but also the conspiracy theories spread by the Kremlin. One of them seems to have the widest range of distribution.

These are alleged attempts by Ukraine to develop biological or nuclear weapons in US biolaboratories on its territory.

“US biolaboratories in Ukraine have really attracted a lot of attention recently,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao said on Tuesday, echoing a conspiracy theory that the Kremlin has been citing for years.

“All dangerous pathogens in Ukraine must be stored in these laboratories, and all studies are conducted by the United States,” Zhao added, citing no evidence. Authorities in the United States and Ukraine have called the allegations baseless.

In fact, Ukraine, among many other countries, has public health laboratories that study dangerous diseases that affect humans and animals. For this purpose, the pathogens that cause the diseases in question are studied. These tests are for protection, and the laboratories are supported by the World Health Organization, the European Union and the United States.

Although there is no evidence that Ukraine is using such pathogens for military purposes, Beijing has already taken Moscow’s position in this part of the information war.

China and Taiwan

This is another demonstration of the ideological ties between China and Russia. Their authoritarian regimes equally reject democratic rule, individual freedom as the highest value, and economic domination of the West.

All of these similarities have raised fears that China could use the situation to similarly invade Taiwan, which Beijing considers its territory. He did not recognize its independence, unlike Ukraine, which is recognized by both China and Russia.

A day before the start of the war, the Chinese Foreign Ministry once again defended its position, saying “Taiwan is not Ukraine. “Taiwan has always been an integral part of China.”

The United States, for its part, has significant economic and geopolitical interests in the region. That would mean that Taiwan’s eventual accession to China by force would provoke a sharp US reaction and a possible conflict in the Pacific.

For now, however, China is trying to avoid open military conflicts and is not taking concrete measures.

Obstacle or opportunity

In addition to the open conflict, Beijing also supports economic sanctions imposed on Russia by the West.

They are one of the leading factors that make it difficult for Beijing to take a clear stand in support of Russia. China has strong economic ties with Moscow, built on decades and confirmed in a statement on February 4. In addition to opposing NATO enlargement, it covers a number of other areas of cooperation, including economics, energy, astronomy, and coronavirus vaccines.

Full economic support for Russia will jeopardize China’s business with the rest of the world. One reason is that the population in Europe and North America far exceeds that of Russia, which gives China a much wider market – the world’s largest exporter of goods.

Also, according to experts, Russia’s main exports consist of fuel and wheat, which would be difficult to compensate for all other goods imported from China.

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