Moscow’s recognition of two breakaway areas of Ukraine creates a potentially messy precedent for China’s claims to Taiwan, analysts said.
While China might support Russia’s move to incorporate lost territory, Moscow’s recognition of independence for two breakaway areas of Ukraine could also create a precedent for Western nations to recognize Taiwan, said Chong Ja Ian (莊嘉穎), an associate professor at the National University of Singapore.
“Russia’s actions and statements create an awkward situation for the PRC [People’s Republic of China],” he said. “Beijing seems to be very cautious about how it frames these issues, emphasizing instead the need for peace.”
Beijing has long blamed the US for fomenting unrest in places like Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, and regularly calls on the West to avoid supporting independence backers in Taiwan.
Over the weekend, Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) said that China upheld Ukraine’s right to “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity,” even while blasting the West for “creating panic.”
Following Russian President Vladimir Putin’s move on Monday to recognize two self-proclaimed separatist republics in eastern Ukraine, Wang urged all parties to protect the principle of the UN Charter during a telephone call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Wang Wenbin (汪文斌) later called on all involved to “de-escalate the situation through dialogue and negotiation.”
While most diplomats at an emergency UN Security Council meeting condemned Putin’s government for escalating tensions with Ukraine, China’s envoy carefully avoided any mention of Russia.
“All parties concerned must exercise restraint and avoid any action that may fuel tensions,” Chinese Ambassador to the UN Zhang Jun (張軍) said late on Monday as part of a six-sentence statement.
“The current situation in Ukraine is a result of many complex factors,” he added. “China always makes its own position, according to the merits of the matter itself.”
“China will have to walk a fine line in this crisis,” said Noah Barkin, an expert on Europe-China relations at US research firm Rhodium Group. “It will want to avoid openly criticizing Russia’s actions in Ukraine, while affirming its support for the principles of territorial integrity and non-interference. The hotter the conflict in Ukraine gets, the more difficult it will be for Beijing to walk this line.”
Beijing is making it clear that it does not want to be directly associated with Moscow’s moves, said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the US.
“The costs of doing so, in terms of relations with the US and Europe, and its global reputation, are too high,” she said.
For Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), the crisis marks a test of his efforts to portray China as a responsible global leader.
While Putin is known for military adventurism, China has regularly claimed to uphold an international order backed by UN agencies while condemning the US and its allies as rogues for imposing targeted financial sanctions.
The comments by China’s foreign minister backing Ukraine’s sovereignty should be interpreted as Beijing having “major reservations” about Putin’s actions, said Shi Yinhong (時殷弘), professor of international relations at Beijing’s Renmin University.
However, China would not publicly criticize Russia or downgrade the relationship, he added.
It is “pretty obvious” that China is not ready to bear all the diplomatic costs if Russia invades, said Jakub Jakobowski, a senior fellow with the China Programme at the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw. “Still, their general support for Moscow’s demands and a lack of condemnation is certainly a wink to the Russians.”
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