China Offers Tame Response to Russia Invading Ukraine

China offered a tame response to Russian President Vladimir Putin ordering troops into eastern Ukraine late on Monday, refusing to join a collective rebuke of Moscow at the United Nations Security Council.

The council's emergency special session was convened at Kyiv's request, after Putin moved to formally recognize the breakaway regions of Donetsk and Luhansk as independent states, a decision that could leave the Chinese leadership in an uneasy position, given its ambition to lead global affairs.

"China once again calls on all participants to remain calm, not to do anything to aggravate tensions or hype up the crisis, but to properly resolve their differences through consultations on an equal footing," said Zhang Jun, China's permanent representative to the UN. He called for the "legitimate security concerns" of all parties to be considered, before repeating Beijing's backing of Moscow against NATO. "Russia's legitimate security concerns should be heeded and addressed," Zhang said.

In written remarks delivered to the council, the diplomat said all parties must exercise restraint. "We welcome and encourage every effort for a diplomatic solution, and call on all parties concerned to continue dialogue and consultation, and seek reasonable solutions to address each other's concerns on the basis of equality and mutual respect," Zhang said.

"The current situation in Ukraine is a result of many complex factors. China always makes its own position according to the merits of the matter itself," he said. "We believe that all countries should solve international disputes by peaceful means in line with the purposes and principles of the UN Charter."

Zhang renewed calls for the full implementation of the new Minsk agreement, the 13-point ceasefire struck in February 2015. He described Minsk II as a "binding foundational document." Among the accords was the withdrawal of all foreign military equipment and mercenaries from the Donbas, but Putin's deployment of so-called "peacekeepers" into the region would appear to collapse the deal.

Beijing's close relationship with Moscow has been described by some as a quasi-alliance, although it has purposely shied away from such terminology. While there's little to suggest that China has endorsed Russia's incursion into Ukraine, the political alignment between President Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping would appear to leave the latter in an uneasy position, in which China can't openly criticize or support Russia's actions.

Earlier this month, Xi backed Putin's concerns about NATO's expansion in a joint statement whose implications surprised many in the West. The Pentagon warned China it was offering "tacit support" for Russia's imminent invasion of its neighbor, but Beijing insisted Washington and its NATO partners were exaggerating the threat of military action.

Ambiguity on Territorial Expansion

As late as last Saturday, China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi was riled by allegations that his country was backing Russia. He told the Munich Security Conference that the "sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity" of all countries should be respected and safeguarded. "Ukraine is no exception," said Wang, who called suggestions to the contrary "a distortion of China's position."

Viewed from a distance, Beijing's ambiguity regarding Russia's territorial expansion is not new. It was equally noncommittal when Moscow used a similar playbook to recognize the independence of Georgia's South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008, and it abstained from voting with the UN Security Council when its members sought to invalidate Russia's annexation of Crimea through a 2014 referendum.

China's hesitance seems in part due to sensitivities surrounding some of its own wantaway regions, and the unpredictable precedent it would set were Beijing to allow the recognition of their independence.

However, the China of eight or 14 years ago is not the same country it is today—the world's second-largest economy and one of its strongest armies, whose president sees the nation as ready to take on a global leadership role in a new multipolar world. After the Russia-China joint statement on February 4, White House press secretary Jen Psaki reminded the leadership in Beijing that a conflict in Europe would also impact on China's economic interests.

China Offers Tame Response to Russian Invasion
The UN Security Council convenes for an emergency special session in New York on February 21, 2022, after Russia recognized two of Ukraine’s breakaway regions and deployed its military into the Donbas to act as peacekeepers. TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images