Beijing uneasily weighs how far to go in backing Putin on Ukraine

By | February 17, 2022

The Wall Street Journal reports:

China’s longstanding foreign-policy stance, set forth soon after the founding of Communist China by then-Premier Zhou Enlai in the “five principles of peaceful coexistence,” is to not endorse any country’s aggression or intervention in another’s affairs.

That helps explain why China hasn’t recognized Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, or fully supported Moscow when it deployed forces to Kazakhstan early this year to quell unrest in the Central Asian nation.

Beijing is aware that by so closely aligning China with Russia on European security issues, it risks further alienating Europe and pushing countries on the continent further into the orbit of the U.S.

On Wednesday, Mr. Xi made his first remarks on Ukraine that China has made public since Mr. Putin left. In a phone conversation with French President Emmanuel Macron, the Chinese leader called for the use of dialogue such as the Normandy talks—a diplomatic channel established in 2014 to end the fighting in Ukraine whose members are Germany, Russia, Ukraine and France—to reach “a comprehensive settlement of the Ukrainian issue,” state media reported.

On a more practical level, Beijing feels the need to protect its own economic and security interests in regions that could be under threat from the Kremlin. Notably, Ukraine is a member of Mr. Xi’s signature Belt and Road initiative, the vast infrastructure lending and construction program designed to put China at the heart of trade from Southeast Asia to Europe.

State-owned Chinese engineering, power and construction companies in recent years have invested billions of dollars in projects in the Eastern European country, a big supplier of cooking oil, machinery and nuclear reactors to China. In late 2020, Beijing and Kyiv agreed to deepen their Belt and Road cooperation, with Vice Premier Liu He, Mr. Xi’s longtime economic czar, pledging to promote “sound and stable bilateral relations” with Ukraine.

Meanwhile, China has been building a vast network of pipelines in Central Asia to secure its supplies of oil and gas, and diversify the source of its suppliers. Many countries that those pipes go through are former members of the Soviet Union.

“Putin is a major headache for Beijing,” said Carl Minzner, senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. “A precedent for Russian intervention in former Soviet lands would increase risks to China’s Central Asia energy pipelines.”

In addition, giving Russia a free hand to intervene in the post-Soviet space would potentially hurt China’s longer-term efforts to displace Russia as the main power in Central Asia.

Reflecting Beijing’s unease on Russia’s position on Ukraine, Mr. Minzner noted, China’s state-media coverage of the Ukraine crisis has settled into a pattern: It blames the U.S. and its allies for delivering weapons to Ukraine and hyping the threats from Russia, but repeats the official Ukrainian position on the need for negotiations. [Continue reading…]

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