BEIJING (AP) – China has described reports and images of civilian killings in Ukraine as disturbing, and urged that they be investigated further, while refusing to blame Russia. This is drawing questions about the resilience of Beijing’s support for Moscow, but speculation that it is weakening appears to be false.
Here’s a look at where China stands at this stage of the conflict:
Is China serious about investigating atrocities?
In his statement on Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian cited reports of atrocities in the city of Buka, saying “the truth and the cause of the incident must be verified.” He said that all the parties should exercise restraint and avoid baseless allegations before the investigation is completed.
Importantly, Zhao did not mention the Russian military and gave no indication of how the evidence should be collected or by whom.
China has a long history of providing political cover for its friends after events such as the sinking of a South Korean Navy ship in 2010. China called it “unfortunate” but refused to accept evidence that North Korea was responsible.
Beijing regularly returns war crimes charges to those accusing the US, citing incidents such as the invasion of Iraq and NATO’s 1999 bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. China has never accepted NATO’s claim that the attack was unexpected.
Where does China stand on Russia’s invasion?
Beijing soon committed itself to the position that Russia was provoked to attack its neighbor by NATO’s eastward expansion in American direction, even though Russian President Vladimir Putin called it his primary motive for the invasion. Not listed as
China has not participated in the votes at the United Nations condemning Russia’s actions, and in keeping with standard policy, has strongly opposed economic sanctions against Russia.
At the same time, China shows no signs of rushing to ease those restrictions or filling the void left by the departure of Western companies from Russia.
Beijing has recently focused its messages on calls for dialogue leading to a ceasefire and avoiding a major humanitarian catastrophe. It has also provided humanitarian aid to Ukraine and has kept a line open for the Ukrainian authorities. Foreign Minister Wang Yi told his counterpart Dimitro Kuleba on Monday that China “doesn’t have the mentality to watch the fire from a safe distance, yet does little to do anything to fuel the fire.”
What is behind China’s support for Russia?
China and Russia have become increasingly close 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 United Nations and has helped in its efforts to condemn its military intervention in Syria. The countries together account for two of the five permanent veto-territorial seats on the UN Security Council, creating a bloc that could effectively thwart Washington’s initiative.
The two are also closely linked economically, with China becoming Russia’s largest trading partner and an important export market for natural gas and oil.
A few weeks before the war broke out, Xi and Putin met in Beijing and issued a joint statement describing their relationship as “no boundaries”. So criticizing Putin would be an indirect criticism of Xi, which China does not tolerate.
What are the risks and potential benefits?
By claiming to be an impartial observer, China has won Moscow’s gratitude by shielding itself from massive obligations to act against Russia. Beijing also points to the refusal by other countries, including India and Brazil, to condemn Moscow as not standing alone.
Beijing has no desire to see the end of Putin’s regime, but could benefit from becoming a junior partner in the relationship with a weaker Russia. This could give Beijing a stronger hand in obtaining Russian energy resources and state-of-the-art military technology.
Currently, the risks are minimal. Beijing has long been accustomed to accusing them of enabling or committing human rights abuses and has become adept at using its economic and political clout to ignore or ignore them.
While its largest city Shanghai is facing one of the country’s biggest outbreaks since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and with a major Communist Party congress coming later in the year, China is open to anything is on high alert which could threaten domestic stability.
How is China keeping the people on its side?
Beijing’s entirely Communist Party-controlled media have reported on civilian killings in Buka, but their coverage has a strong pro-Russian leaning. The media has also amplified Russian propaganda, specifically dismissing claims that the US and Ukraine are cooperating in the production of biological weapons.
Beijing has sent instructions to teachers on how to “correctly” explain the conflict to students, with the US as the “main culprit”.
It also shrugs off the official narrative with the spread of a documentary film before the February 24 invasion that denounces the collapse of Russia’s former communist system. “Historical nihilism and Soviet collapse” praises Putin and Joseph Stalin, while reformers such as Nikita Khrushchev and Mikhail Gorbachev accuse the US and its allies of helping to undermine the system from within.