China Doubles Down on Support for Ukraine, Backs Peace Talks to End War

China's Foreign Ministry is standing by a bold statement by its ambassador to Ukraine— who pledged Beijing's economic and political support for Kyiv—but is still refusing to rebuke Russia openly.

The envoy, Fan Xianrong, told officials in Lviv that China and Ukraine were "strategic partners" celebrating three decades of formal diplomatic relations.

"China is a friendly country for the Ukrainian people. As an ambassador, I can responsibly say that China will forever be a good force for Ukraine, both economically and politically," he said, according to state news agency Ukrinform.

"We will always respect your state, we will develop relations on the basis of equality and mutual benefit. We will respect the path chosen by Ukrainians because this is the sovereign right of every nation," he said on Monday.

Fan and his consular staff relocated to the western Ukrainian city, near the border with Poland, after the Kremlin's invasion. Lviv's regional office said he met with Maksym Kozytskyi, the head of the local military administration.

On Thursday, at a regular press briefing in Beijing, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said: "China of course supports the statement by the Chinese ambassador. China supports all efforts that are conducive to easing the situation in Ukraine and a political settlement."

Zhao added that Beijing would "do its part" to bring an end to the humanitarian crisis.

Fan's overture to Kyiv is part of a deliberate but subtle shift away from the official line in Beijing. Many in the West—and some in the East—have been surprised by China's refusal to condemn Russia publicly, despite professing respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Beijing is yet to make use of its biggest advantage—the political and economic leverage it holds over Moscow, another "strategic partner" that is currently destabilizing the Chinese stock market and threatening China's own economy with spillover effects from Western sanctions.

"China will never attack Ukraine. We will help, in particular in the economic direction," Fan told officials in Lviv. He said China would "act responsibly" in the crisis. "We have seen how great the unity of the Ukrainian people is, and that means its strength," he added.

China Backs Ambassador's Pledges to Ukraine
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, seen in Beijing on April 8, 2020. Zhao has criticized Secretary of State Antony Blinken for telling NPR that China is “on the wrong side of history” on Ukraine. GREG BAKER/AFP via Getty Images

Although the Chinese authorities have created a domestic atmosphere that is overwhelmingly pro-Russian and anti-American, there are some in the country who expected more overt support for Kyiv, especially because the outbreak of hostilities last month threatened the safety of its 6,000 citizens in Ukraine.

On Weibo, China's main social media service, a post carrying Zhao's latest comments received this reply: "You say the right things, but why did you vote against the International Court of Justice order to withdraw Russian forces? How is it beneficial to the situation in Ukraine if the troops don't withdraw?"

On Wednesday, the United Nations court voted 13-2 in favor of Russia's cessation of military activities in Ukraine and the immediate withdrawal of its forces. The Russian and Chinese jurists, Kirill Gevorgian and Xue Hanqin, voted against. On Thursday, the Kremlin rejected the order.

China has denied that it had any prior knowledge of President Vladimir Putin's invasion plans and insists it won't sustain the war by providing Russia with material aid. But in the Foreign Ministry press conference, Zhao reiterated Beijing's support for what Russia considers its grievances against the West.

After Secretary of State Antony Blinken told NPR that China was already "on the wrong side of history" for its refusal to stand against Russian aggression—a position that Blinken believed has caused "real damage" to China's reputation around the world—Zhao described the remarks as slanderous.

"It is the U.S. government's decision on NATO's eastward expansion that has direct links to the current crisis in Ukraine," said Zhao. "The key to solving the Ukraine crisis lies in the hands of the U.S. and NATO."

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