BEIJING — China has called reports and images of civilian killings in Ukraine disturbing and urged that they be investigated further, while refusing to blame Russia. This raises questions about the resilience of Beijing’s support for Moscow, but speculation that it is weakening seems misplaced.
IS CHINA SERIOUS IN INVESTIGATING ATROCITIES?
In his statement on Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian referred to reports of atrocities in the city of Bucha, saying, “The truth and cause of the incident must be verified. . He said all parties should exercise restraint and avoid “charges until the investigation is concluded.”
Crucially, Zhao made no mention of Russian forces and gave no indication of how the evidence should be collected or by whom.
China has a long history of political cover from friends after incidents such as the sinking of a South Korean navy vessel in 2010. China called it ‘unfortunate’ but refused to accept the evidence that North Korea was responsible.
Beijing also regularly turns war crimes charges against the accusers, primarily the United States, citing the invasion of Iraq and incidents such as the 1999 NATO bombing of the embassy of China to Belgrade, Yugoslavia. China has never accepted NATO’s claim that the attack was unintentional.
WHERE IS CHINA ON THE INVASION OF RUSSIA?
Beijing committed to the position early on that Russia was provoked into attacking its neighbor by NATO’s eastward expansion under US leadership, even though Russian President Vladimir Putin did not did not list this as its primary reason for invasion.
China abstained in votes at the United Nations condemning Russia’s actions and, in line with usual policy, strongly opposed economic sanctions against Russia.
At the same time, China shows no signs of undermining those sanctions or rushing to fill the void left by the departure of Western companies from Russia.
Beijing has recently focused its messaging on calls for talks leading to a ceasefire and averting a major humanitarian disaster. He also provided Ukraine with humanitarian aid and kept an open line with Ukrainian officials. Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his counterpart Dmytro Kuleba on Monday that China does not have “the mentality of watching the fire from a safe distance, let alone doing anything that feeds the fire.”
WHAT IS BEHIND CHINA’S SUPPORT FOR RUSSIA?
China and Russia have grown ever closer under Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, aligning their foreign policies in opposition to the Western liberal world order.
China generally follows Russia’s lead in voting at the UN and has helped thwart efforts to censure it for its military intervention in Syria. Together, the countries represent two of the five permanent seats with veto power on the UN Security Council, forming a bloc that can effectively thwart initiatives from Washington.
The two are also closely linked economically, with China becoming Russia’s biggest trading partner and an important export market for its natural gas and oil.
Just weeks before the start of the war, Xi and Putin met in Beijing and issued a joint statement describing their relationship as having “no limits”. Criticizing Putin would therefore implicitly amount to criticizing Xi, which China does not tolerate.
WHAT ARE THE POTENTIAL RISKS AND BENEFITS?
By pretending to be an impartial observer, China has earned Moscow’s gratitude while largely evading obligations to act against Russia. Beijing also points to the refusal of other countries, including India and Brazil, to condemn Moscow as proof that it is not alone.
Beijing has no desire to see an end to Putin’s regime, but could benefit from a weakened Russia becoming even more of a junior partner in the relationship. This could give Beijing a stronger hand in obtaining Russian energy resources and cutting-edge military technology.
Currently, the risks are minimal. Beijing has long been accustomed to being accused of enabling or perpetrating human rights abuses and has become adept at ignoring or warding them off using its economic and political clout.
As its biggest city, Shanghai, faces one of the country’s biggest outbreaks since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and with a key Communist Party congress coming later in the year, the China is on high alert for anything that could threaten domestic stability.
HOW DOES CHINA KEEP THE PUBLIC ON ITS SIDE?
The fully Communist Party-controlled Beijing media reported on the civilian killings in Bucha, but their coverage has a strong pro-Russian slant. The media has also amplified Russian disinformation, particularly debunked claims that the United States and Ukraine have collaborated in the production of biological weapons.
Beijing has sent instructions to teachers on how to “properly” explain the conflict to students, with the US cast as the “main culprit”.
It also bolstered the official narrative with the release of a pre-invasion documentary film on February 24 that denounces the fall of the old Russian communist system. “Historical Nihilism and Soviet Collapse” praises Putin and Joseph Stalin, while accusing reformers such as Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev of helping the United States and its allies weaken the system of interior.