At Home, 'Neutral' China Pushes Vladimir Putin's Agenda on Ukraine War

The United States bears "inescapable responsibility" for the crisis in Ukraine, the Chinese Communist Party's flagship newspaper declared, as Beijing embarked on a fresh campaign to blame Russia's war on the West.

"Behind the Ukraine crisis lies the shadow of American hegemony," the People's Daily, which carries the party's official viewpoints, said on page 3 of its March 29 edition. Author "Zhong Sheng"—the Chinese leadership's pen name when expounding on international affairs—continues: "U.S.-led NATO's eastward expansion is the root cause of the Ukraine crisis; the U.S. is the instigator of the Ukraine crisis."

The column is the first in a new series published by the CCP's propaganda department, and the latest front in Beijing's own years-long struggle against the postwar international order led from Washington. While ostensibly about criticizing the "Cold War remnant" that is the North Atlantic Alliance, it's more indicative of what the government wants its domestic audience to perceive about the West in general and America in particular as it lays the narrative groundwork for an intensifying U.S.-China rivalry.

It concludes with a call for all parties to take a "realistic and sober view" of geopolitics in order to build a European security mechanism that "transcends the thinking of Eastern and Western camps."

"As the instigator and biggest promoter of the Ukraine crisis, the U.S. should reflect on its contemptible role, completely abandon its Cold War mentality and hegemonic behavior, and truly contribute practically toward global and regional peace and stability," it said.

Neutral Position

Since Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Chinese officials have said their country is "not a party" to the conflict. They describe Beijing's outwardly neutral position as consistent with the majority at the United Nations, despite abstaining at UN General Assembly votes on March 2 and 24, when 141 and 140 countries, respectively, condemned Russia's war and named Moscow as the cause behind the growing humanitarian crisis in Ukraine.

When China did vote in favor, it did so in order to back a humanitarian resolution by Moscow, which didn't mention Russia's role as the invading party. The attempt was rejected by the UN Security Council last Wednesday.

Despite vowing to continue normal trade with Russia, China says it won't materially support Putin's war by providing weapons or other wartime supplies. U.S. officials aren't seeing attempts by Beijing to help Moscow evade the West's sweeping sanctions either, although Washington cautions—including a direct warning from Joe Biden to Xi Jinping during their recent virtual summit—that doing so would have consequences for the Chinese economy, too.

Still, the West sees China as providing significant diplomatic and political cover to Russia as the U.S. and other major economies try to isolate Putin from the world stage. Beijing's refusal to condemn Moscow is one such example, and its strong anti-American and anti-Western messaging at home is another.

This week's People's Daily editorial repeated Russia's grievances against NATO and further symbolized the bond between Xi and Putin—a relationship that causes unease in Washington.

The column also typified the way Beijing views international relations in the 21st century. In its eyes, lesser countries are always at the beck and call of leaders in Washington. Small and medium powers like Ukraine—and by extension those who opted to join NATO in the post-Cold War era—have little to no capacity to decide their foreign and security policies.

Tuesday's editorial also took aim at the concepts of "democracy versus autocracy" and "good versus evil" political narratives popular with President Biden, who was implicitly accused of trying to contain China's development through "bloc confrontation" and by "provoking ideological conflicts."

For many, China's alignment with Russia came long before last month's war in Ukraine; others may have thought it inevitable after the two sides released a 5,000-word joint statement on February 4, in which China formally sided with Russia and its security concerns vis-à-vis NATO, while Moscow sympathized with Beijing's complaints about American engagement in the Indo-Pacific region that encompasses all of Asia.

More than giving Russia its full-throated support, China's position on the war in Ukraine is indicative of its own posture in the wider standoff with the U.S. that began in earnest during the administration of former President Donald Trump. Viewed from such an angle, China watchers see Beijing's support for Moscow as something of a proxy war against the world's current dominant power, which, until the outbreak of war in Europe, the Chinese leadership was certain was in terminal decline.

UPDATE 04/01/22, 9:50 p.m. ET: This article's opening paragraph was updated to reflect an official translation of the People's Daily column.

China Supports Russia's Ukraine War Narrative
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, greets Chinese President Xi Jinping in Brasilia, Brazil, on November 13, 2019. The two leaders have shared a growing strategic partnership that culminated in China’s significant diplomatic and political support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine after it began on February 24, 2022. Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images