A new ‘pact against the West’: a new agreement between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Russian president Vladimir Putin was described early last month. But barely a month later, relations between China and Russia are under pressure as a result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
At the beginning of February, when the military build-up along the border with Ukraine was already well advanced, Russian President Putin sat in the stands at the Winter Games in Beijing as guest of honor. There he already seemed to be making a gesture to the Ukrainians by suddenly falling ‘asleep’ when their national team arrived. Shortly before that, he had visited Xi, where the agreement had been signed. Both leaders spoke of a ‘friendship that knows no bounds’.
The two countries have been growing closer to each other for some time now. Mutual trade rose to record levels last year, and they also have a lot in common politically: both Moscow and Beijing tolerate less and less political opposition. Think of the suppression of protests in Hong Kong on the Chinese side, or the detention of politician Alexei Navalni in Russia.
Because of that strong bond, China officially speaks very mildly about the war in Ukraine. For example, the word ‘war’ is not used, but speaks of ‘the Ukraine situation’. State media also avoid terms such as ‘invasion’ and invariably refer to NATO expansion as the main cause of the conflict. That’s all in line with how Russia sees it.
‘Conflict not in Chinese interest’
Yet the invasion of Ukraine does not sit well with the leaders in Beijing. “It is clear that the conflict is not in Chinese interest,” said Josef Gregory Mahoney, a professor of politics and international relations at ECNU University in Shanghai.
He refers, among other things, to the good ties that Beijing maintains with both Russia and Ukraine. It does not want to take sides between two friendly states. Mahoney said: “China is particularly vulnerable to grain and oil price increases as a result of this conflict. It has also been criticized internationally for not openly criticizing Moscow’s actions and not participating in sanctions. These are significant sacrifices for China.”
Meanwhile, Ukraine is the talk of the town among the Chinese population. On Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, most of the trending topics are war-related. There is concern about the many Chinese residing in cities such as Kiev and Kharkiv. They also closely follow the developments surrounding the conflict.
What is striking is that expressions of support for Ukraine are widely shared, but often removed by the censors. And that while messages that support the Russian camp in particular often remain standing.
Censorship criticism of Putin
An open letter from several prominent professors at Chinese universities was quickly deleted, presumably because it condemned Russian aggression and expressed support for the Ukrainians. They also called on their own government to condemn the invasion. One of the letter writers told Reuters news agency: “This is an invasion. As the Chinese saying goes, you can’t call a deer a horse.”
At the same time, Putin’s recent speech, in which he questions the existence of Ukraine’s state, is doing very well online. Millions of Russia sympathizers say they are deeply moved by Putin’s words. The message is clear: China doesn’t openly support Russia, but it doesn’t want to offend its great northern neighbor either.
Mutual history full of conflicts
The two countries have a turbulent history between them. The current friendly relationship is therefore not self-evident: over the centuries there have been ideological as well as territorial disputes and even conflicts. For example, the extreme east of Russia, the area around the city of Vladivostok, was once part of the Chinese empire. Some Chinese nationalists still call this a ‘historic injustice’.
So it is a relationship of ups and downs. But guess what: China has good ties to both Russia and Ukraine, and it doesn’t intend to sacrifice one for the other – ‘pact against the West’ or not.