‘Abrupt Changes’: China Caught in a Bind Over Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine

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As Russian troops have poured into Ukraine, officials in Beijing have fumed at any suggestion that they are betraying a core principle of Chinese foreign policy — that sovereignty is sacrosanct — in order to shield Moscow.

They will not even call it an invasion. “Russia’s operation” is one preferred description. The “current situation” is another. And China’s leader, Xi Jinping, says his position on the crisis is perfectly coherent.

“The abrupt changes in the eastern regions of Ukraine have been drawing the close attention of the international community,” Mr. Xi told his Russian counterpart, Vladimir V. Putin, in a call on Friday, according to an official Chinese summary.

“China’s fundamental stance has been consistent in respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, and abiding by the mission and principles of the United Nations Charter,” Mr. Xi said.

Outside the echo chamber of Chinese official media, however, there seems little doubt that Russia’s war has put its partner Beijing in a severe bind, including over where it stands on countries’ sovereign rights.

China may have played a role Friday in inducing Russia to look more accommodating, even as Russian forces advanced into Kyiv.

After Mr. Putin’s phone call with Mr. Xi, in which the Chinese leader called for talks, the Russian president signaled he was open to the idea, reversing his own foreign minister’s statement made just hours earlier. The Kremlin framed Mr. Putin’s position as a response to Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who had said he was ready to discuss “neutral status” for Ukraine.

Talks to resolve the crisis, however belated, would clearly be in China’s interest, easing what critics see as its double-standard on the sovereignty issue.

On the one hand, China has long said that the United States and other Western powers routinely trample over other countries, most egregiously in recent times in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. China’s message has been that it is the true guardian of sovereign independence, especially for poorer countries.

On the other hand, Mr. Putin has expected Mr. Xi to accept, if not support, the invasion. Mr. Xi’s government has played along so far, laying responsibility for Europe’s worst war in decades on hubris by the United States. China has also distanced itself from the condemnation of Russia at the United Nations.

China’s “central attack on the United States as a global power since Xi Jinping has come to office has been to accuse it of continued violation of U.N. Charter principles on national sovereignty,” Kevin Rudd, a former prime minister of Australia who served as a diplomat in China, said in a telephone interview. “This torpedoes that argument midship.”

The growing economic relationship between China and Russia also has given Mr. Xi some potential leverage in pushing for Mr. Putin to quickly resolve the Ukraine crisis. With severe sanctions now imposed on Russia by Western powers, Mr. Putin may need China more than ever as an investor and buyer of Russian oil, wheat and other products.

Unless the Ukraine crisis is resolved, China will continue performing verbal contortions to try to balance its solidarity with Russia with its declared devotion to the sanctity of the nation-state, experts and former diplomats said.

If the war expands and persists, the costs for China of hemming and hawing over a deadly crisis may grow.

Beijing’s stance has already angered Western European leaders and hardened American frustration with China. Asian and African countries traditionally close to Beijing have condemned Russia’s actions. One of the main currencies of Chinese diplomacy — its declared dedication to sovereign rights for all countries — could be devalued.

“The incoherence is damaging to China over the long term,” said Adam Ni, an analyst who publishes China Neican, a newsletter on Chinese current affairs.

“It undermines China’s long-held foreign policy principles, and makes it harder to project itself as a responsible great power,” he said. Mr. Ni said it would also “be seen by the U.S. and E.U. member states as duplicity and complicity in Russian aggression, which will likely have costs for Beijing.”

Chinese newspapers have uniformly held to the government’s position on the war, accusing the United States of provoking Russia by holding open the possibility that Ukraine could join NATO.

“China believes that the chief cause of this war was the United States’ long-term failure to respect Russian security,” said Xuewu Gu, the director of the Center for Global Studies at the University of Bonn in Germany. “In that sense, China sees this war as one of self-defense by Russia, therefore naturally it would not describe it as an invasion.”

In private, some Chinese academics have shared misgivings about Mr. Xi’s embrace of Mr. Putin. And on the Chinese internet, some users have robustly questioned how China’s position on the Ukraine war squares with its longstanding precept that countries should steer their own fates.

“Ukraine is a sovereign, independent country, and if it wants to join NATO or the E.U., that’s its freedom and nobody else has the right to intervene,” said one comment on Friday on Weibo, a popular Chinese social media service.

More than most countries, China has upheld the idea that national sovereignty trumps other concerns, including human rights standards. China’s modern concept of sovereignty — “zhuquan” in Chinese — developed from the 19th century when Western powers subjugated the Qing rulers.

“There’s a great insistence on a full concept of sovereignty, and it’s typical of third world colonial or semi-colonial environments,” said Ryan Mitchell, a law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, on how such concepts evolved in China. “That remains true today.”

Beijing’s muscular notion of how far its sovereignty reaches has become one of the main drivers — and trouble points — of Chinese policy.

Beijing has maintained that Taiwan, the self-governed island that has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, must eventually be united with China, even if armed force is needed. Beijing has made expansive claims to islands and waters across the South China Sea. It has also been locked in clashes with India over disputed borderlands.

In domestic policy, too, the Chinese government has made sovereignty a focus. When the authorities put dissidents on trial in secret, they brush off requests for access or information by citing “judicial sovereignty.” When Chinese internet censorship is criticized, officials cite China’s right to preserve its “cybersovereignty.”

In meetings with Chinese diplomats, the word came up often, said Mr. Rudd, the former prime minister of Australia, who is now president of the Asia Society.

“The whole notion of mutual noninterference and the respect for national sovereignty has been not just a cosmetic principle but an operational principle for the Chinese system internally,” he said.

Chinese diplomats will be busy explaining how that comports with their position on Ukraine.

That may be tricky, but they have some practice. When Russian forces seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, China tried to strike a balance. It abstained from a United Nations Security Council resolution urging states not to recognize Russia’s claim to the area, but it did not formally recognize Russia’s claim, either. Chinese leaders also tried to straddle positions after Russian forces seized territory in Georgia in 2008.

This time, however, Mr. Xi has already leaned China much more toward Russia. He and Mr. Putin met at the start of the Beijing Winter Olympics in early February, and issued a joint statement declaring that their countries’ friendship “has no bounds.”

“After that statement that ties Xi so closely to Putin, the U.S. and others are bound to punish China for enabling Russia’s aggression,” said Susan Shirk, a former deputy assistant secretary of state who now leads the 21st Century China Center at the University of California San Diego.

“But it’s also harder for China to signal to the world that it doesn’t support Russia’s move,” she said. “Looks like Putin suckered Xi.”

Keith Bradsher and Ana Swanson contributed reporting. Liu Yi contributed research.

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