Beijing Says China and Russia Are Not Allies

China's "no limits" partnership with Russia is under scrutiny amid Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine, throughout which Beijing's noncommittal position has been interpreted as tacit support for the Russian president's attempts at regime change in Kyiv.

China-Russia relations were elevated to a special category in 2019. The "comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination for a new era" signaled strong military, political and economic alignment, and close ties described last year as "better than an alliance."

But as Putin's military campaign against his neighbors threatens to make his country a pariah on the international stage—through banned airspace, canceled visas and unprecedented economic sanctions—Russia has pointed to China as an example of a major power still offering friendship and support.

At a daily press conference on Monday, as the invasion entered its fifth day, China's foreign ministry tried subtly to put some distance between Beijing's relationship with Moscow and the hostilities in Ukraine.

"China and Russia are comprehensive strategic partners of coordination. China-Russia relations are based on non-alliance, non-confrontation and non-targeting of third countries," ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said.

China's position on the Ukraine crisis is "based on the merits of the matter itself," he said, without elaborating. "We always stand on the side of peace and justice." He then reiterated a description of the situation as "complex," refusing to back Kyiv outright.

Beijing's implicit support for Ukraine thus far has come in the form of one oft-repeated phrase: "The sovereignty and territorial integrity of every country should be respected and safeguarded. The aims and principles of the UN Charter should be upheld. This is China's consistent position, and is it a basic norm governing international relations that all countries should subscribe to."

Wang said China wanted to maintain friendly relations with Ukraine, but quickly dismissed any possibility of joining global sanctions against its neighbor to the north.

"China does not approve of solving problems through sanctions," Wang said. The official added that it was likely to cause new problems and a "lose-lose" economic situation for all. Chinese firms would continue trading with Russia, he suggested.

In response to a question about President Putin putting his country's nuclear forces on alert, Wang took the chance to criticize NATO's eastward expansion and said Moscow's "legitimate security demands should be addressed." All sides should "remain calm, exercise restraint and avoid further escalation," Wang said.

Chinese Citizens in Ukraine

China is facing some criticism at home for failing to pull some 6,000 Chinese citizens out of Ukraine before Russia's full-scale invasion began last Thursday. Despite Russia's troop buildup along the border and non-stop warnings from the United States, China didn't appear to believe Putin would take such drastic action.

Days before the attacks began, Beijing was still accusing Washington of "playing up the threat of war." Its embassy remained operational throughout, and it failed to issue a travel advisory or recommend its citizens find a route home.

After Russia's forces advanced into Kyiv-held territory and missile barrages began hitting military installations, Chinese officials in Ukraine were unable to arrange evacuation flights and could only ask citizens to stay put. Before fighting broke out, the Chinese Embassy in Kyiv advised citizens to remain indoors or affix Chinese flags to their vehicles if traveling by car. Some 24 hours later, that advice changed to seek shelter and not to actively reveal one's nationality.

Chinese state-owned news outlets reported what were said to be government-led efforts to charter planes for its citizens. But the embassy later said the conditions were not suitable for such an evacuation—the airspace had been long closed by then. Spokesperson Wang said the foreign ministry remained in touch with the embassy and would arrange evacuations when possible.

Asked whether China had mismanaged the evacuation, Wang said the situation on the ground underwent "rapid changes." He dismissed reports that said U.S. officials had tried warning Beijing about the invasion several months in advance.

China-Russia Relationship Not an Alliance: Beijing
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin during a daily press briefing on July 24, 2020, in Beijing. Asked about China’s endorsement of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Wang told reporters on February 28, 2022, that Beijing’s relationship with Moscow was not an alliance. GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images