Russia’s invasion of Ukraine tests China’s ‘sovereignty’ rhetoric
As Russian troops poured into Ukraine, Beijing officials fumed at any suggestion that they would betray a fundamental tenet of Chinese foreign policy — that sovereignty is sacrosanct — in order to protect Moscow.
They won’t even call it an invasion. “The Russian operation” is a privileged description. The “current situation” is another. And Chinese leader Xi Jinping says his stance on the crisis is perfectly consistent.
“The abrupt changes in the eastern regions of Ukraine have drawn the attention of the international community,” Xi told his Russian counterpart, Vladimir V. Putin, in a call on Friday, according to a Chinese official summary. .
“China’s fundamental position has been consistent in respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries, and in upholding the mission and principles of the UN Charter,” Xi said. .
Outside the echo chamber of China’s official media, however, there is little doubt that Russia’s war has put its partner Beijing in a serious bind, including over its stance on countries’ sovereign rights.
China may have played a role Friday in urging Russia to appear more dovish, even as Russian forces advanced into Kiev.
After Putin’s phone call with Xi, in which the Chinese leader called for talks, the Russian president signaled he was open to the idea, reversing his own business minister’s statement foreign made a few hours earlier. The Kremlin presented Mr Putin’s position as a response to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that he was ready to discuss a “neutral status” for Ukraine.
Talks to resolve the crisis, no matter how late, would clearly be in China’s interest, mitigating what critics see as its double standard on the issue of sovereignty.
On the one hand, China has long said that the United States and other Western powers regularly trample other countries, most egregiously recently during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. China’s message has been that it is the true guardian of sovereign independence, especially for the poorest countries.
On the other hand, Mr Putin expected Mr Xi to accept, if not support, the invasion. Mr Xi’s government has played along so far, blaming the worst European war in decades on US hubris. China has also distanced itself from Russia’s condemnation at the United Nations.
“China’s central attack on the United States as a global power since Xi Jinping came to power has been to accuse it of continued violation of the principles of the United Nations Charter on National Sovereignty,” said Kevin Rudd, a former Australian prime minister who served as a diplomat. in China, said in a telephone interview. “It torpedoes that argument amidships.”
The growing economic relationship between China and Russia has also given Mr. Xi potential leverage to push Mr. Putin to quickly resolve the Ukraine crisis. With the harsh 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 to make verbal contortions to try to balance its solidarity with Russia with its stated devotion to the sanctity of the nation-state, experts and elders have said. diplomats.
If the war spreads and persists, the costs to China of encirclement and apprehension of a deadly crisis could increase.
Beijing’s stance has already angered Western European leaders and heightened 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 commitment to the sovereign rights of all countries – could be devalued.
“The inconsistency is damaging China in the long run,” said Adam Ni, an analyst who publishes China Neican, a China news newsletter.
“It undermines longstanding principles of China’s foreign policy and makes it harder to project itself as a responsible great power,” he said. Mr Ni said it would also be “considered by the US and EU member states as duplicity and complicity in Russian aggression, which will likely have costs for Beijing”.
Chinese newspapers have consistently maintained the government’s stance on the war, accusing the United States of provoking Russia by holding open the possibility that Ukraine could join NATO.
“China believes that the main cause of this war is the United States’ long-term disrespect of Russian security,” said Xuewu Gu, director of the Center for Global Studies at the University of Bonn in Germany. “In that sense, China sees this war as a war of self-defense on Russia’s part, so naturally they wouldn’t describe it as an invasion.”
Privately, some Chinese scholars shared doubts about Mr. Xi’s embrace of Mr. Putin. And on the Chinese internet, some users have vigorously questioned China’s stance on Ukrainian war squares with its longstanding precept that countries should direct their own destiny.
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“Ukraine is a sovereign and independent country, and if it wants to join NATO or the EU, it’s its freedom and no one else has the right to interfere,” said a comment on Friday. on Weibo, a popular Chinese social media service.
More than most countries, China has supported the idea that national sovereignty trumps other concerns, including human rights standards. The modern concept of China’s sovereignty – “zhuquan” in Chinese – developed from the 19th century when Western powers subjugated the Qing rulers.
“There’s a great emphasis on a comprehensive concept of sovereignty, and that’s typical of colonial or semi-colonial environments in the third world,” said Ryan Mitchell, a law professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, on the how these concepts have evolved in China. “That remains true today.”
Beijing’s muscular notion of the scope of its sovereignty has become one of the main drivers – and pain points – of Chinese politics.
Beijing has argued that Taiwan, the self-governing island that has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, must ultimately be united with China, even if armed force is needed. Beijing has made sweeping claims to the islands and waters of the South China Sea. It has also been locked in clashes with India over disputed borders.
In domestic policy too, the Chinese government has made sovereignty a priority. When the authorities secretly translate dissidents, they sweep away requests for access or information by invoking “judicial sovereignty”. When Chinese internet censorship is criticized, officials cite China’s right to preserve its “cyber sovereignty”.
In meetings with Chinese diplomats, the word came up often, said Mr Rudd, the former Australian prime minister, who is now president of the Asia Society.
“The whole notion of mutual non-interference and respect for national sovereignty has not been just a cosmetic principle but an operational principle for the Chinese system internally,” he said.
Chinese diplomats will be busy explaining how this fits with their position on Ukraine.
It can be tricky, but they do take some practice. When Russian forces took Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, China tried to strike a balance. He abstained from participating in a United Nations Security Council resolution urging states not to recognize Russia’s claim to the region, but he also did not formally recognize Russia’s claim. Chinese leaders have also tried to overlap positions after Russian forces seized Georgian territory in 2008.
This time, however, Mr. Xi has already tilted China far more toward Russia. He and Mr Putin met at the start of the Beijing Winter Olympics in early February and issued a joint statement saying their countries’ friendship “knows no bounds”.
“After this statement that ties Xi so closely to Putin, the United States and others are obligated to punish China for allowing Russia’s aggression,” said Susan Shirk, former deputy undersecretary of state. who now runs 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 they don’t support Russia’s move,” she said. “It looks like Putin tricked Xi.”
Keith Bradsher and Ana Swanson contributed reporting. Liu Yi contributed to the research.