China is getting close to Russia but remains cautious in the Ukraine crisis

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Beijing (AFP) – China and Russia sounded alarm bells in the West this month with declaring their greatest friendship in decades, but Beijing indicated it would not support Vladimir Putin if he invaded Ukraine.

The February 4 joint statement included China’s unprecedented support for Russia’s opposition to NATO expansion, and came after Washington and its allies warned of a large-scale military operation by Moscow against Kiev.

It’s an “important change from what has been a consistent escalation and escalation of Russia-China talks over the past 20 years,” former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said in an online discussion co-hosted by the Atlantic Council and Asian think tanks. Community.

“China has become a player in global security in a way I have not personally seen before,” he said.

However, China’s unusually direct stance on NATO and support for Moscow’s “reasonable” security concerns has put it on a diplomatic tightrope as it must strike a balance between its close relations with Russia and its key economic interests in Europe.

With more than 150,000 troops stationed on the border with Ukraine, Russia has demanded assurances that Kiev will never be accepted into NATO, a stance that stands in stark contrast to China’s longstanding foreign policy red line of non-interference in others’ internal affairs. Countries.

Asked if there was a contradiction, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said via video link Saturday at the Munich Security Conference in Germany that the sovereignty of all countries should be respected.

“Ukraine is no exception,” he said.

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That position was put to the test just two days later, after Putin on Monday recognized the two separatist pro-Russian “republics” in eastern Ukraine and ordered Kremlin forces to deploy there “to maintain peace”.

At an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council, the United States and its allies accused Russia of violating Ukraine’s sovereignty, but China chose to remain silent and called on “all parties” to exercise restraint.

Former US ambassador to NATO Ivo Daldir wrote on Twitter that Putin “has denied the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, and even its existence”.

“Both (issues) are central to the Chinese approach to the crisis. Putin has torn them apart,” he added.

delicate balance

This is not the first time that China has had to strike a delicate balance between its interests and a major international military escalation with its Russian strategic partner.

When Moscow annexed Crimea in 2014, China did not join Russia’s veto against a UN Security Council resolution on the issue, preferring to abstain and mostly provide economic support.

Eight years later, experts say there are once again limits to what China can do or want for Russia.

Among the main issues are the financial and trade links with Europe. Open support for any Russian aggression could also threaten the major investment deal Beijing is negotiating with the bloc.

Moreover, some analysts say that China will not want to increase the already high tension with the United States.

“The Ukraine crisis carries a significant risk of deteriorating (Chinese) relations with the European Union and the United States,” Bill Bishop wrote in the China Newsletter.

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Other analysts say that by supporting Russia’s concerns about NATO, China is looking to its own future security interests.

By tacitly siding with Moscow, Beijing is “gaining significant diplomatic leverage” and assuming that Russia will act in the same way if China finds itself in a critical security situation,” said Richard Gyasi, an expert at The Hague Center for Strategic Studies.

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