U.S. and China in Fresh Spat Over Russian Disinformation in Ukraine

Nicholas Burns, the top American envoy in Beijing, rebuked China's Foreign Ministry officials on Monday for "telling lies" by repeating the Kremlin's talking points on events in Ukraine.

The rare public criticism by Burns came amid an intense clash with his Russian opposite number, Andrey Denisov, at the World Peace Forum. The contretemps came at an event co-hosted by Beijing's Tsinghua University and the Chinese Foreign Ministry-backed Chinese People's Institute of Foreign Affairs think tank.

"I would hope that Chinese Foreign Ministry spokespersons would stop accusing NATO of starting this war. That's Russian propaganda," Burns said in response to a question.

"I hope Foreign Ministry spokespersons would also stop telling lies about American bioweapons labs, which do not exist in Ukraine," the diplomat said. "These all came from Russia. Unfortunately, this has been picked up by the Chinese."

Beijing, ostensibly neutral on Russia's war in Ukraine, has refrained from condemning Moscow—a vital geostrategic ally—and doesn't describe the military campaign as an "invasion." Amid China's own pushback against NATO's new long-term focus on Beijing, Chinese officials have also aligned with their Russian counterparts to blame the alliance for triggering President Vladimir Putin's decision to go to war.

More contentious, however, has been China's decision to repeat Russian claims about American biological weapons laboratories in Ukraine, an assertion Moscow is yet to back with credible evidence at public fora such as the United Nations. Beijing argues Washington should prove the labs don't exist.

Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China's Foreign Ministry, repeated this line on Monday. He told a regular press briefing in Beijing that the United States should open up all of its biological facilities for independent scrutiny.

"It is the U.S., not China, that has been spreading disinformation and telling lies," he said. "On Ukraine, China has always made its judgment independently on the basis of the history and the merits of the issue."

In May, the State Department published a report accusing China, its officials and its state-affiliated news media of amplifying Russian propaganda about the war including by spreading conspiracy theories.

At the time, Zhao hinted at some of China's motivations, which appeared to be responses to Beijing's own grievances about U.S. accusations related to Ukraine and other topics.

"We all remember when senior officials at the White House's National Security Council theorized in the media about 'China's prior knowledge [of the invasion],'" Zhao said, without naming Jake Sullivan, Joe Biden's national security adviser.

"Then an anonymous senior official claimed 'Russia had requested weapons, equipment and other assistance from China.' These 'revelations' seemed very vivid, but not one hasn't been proved false," he said.

U.S. officials say they've yet to see signs that China has provided any material support to Russia since the war began in February.

Nicholas Burns Rebukes China Over Russian Disinformation
Nicholas Burns testifies before a Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing on his nomination to be ambassador to China, on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C, on October 20, 2021. At a Chinese-government backed think tank forum in Beijing on July 4, 2022, Burns rebuked China’s Foreign Ministry officials for peddling Russian disinformation about the war in Ukraine. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Monday's event in Beijing offered a rare opportunity for Burns to directly address a largely Chinese audience about Washington's position on the war in Ukraine, and U.S.-China relations more broadly. He recently complained that Secretary of State Antony Blinken's China policy speech was subject to systematic censorship within the Chinese internet.

Burns, who was joined on a panel by British Ambassador Caroline Wilson and French Ambassador Laurent Bili, described Russia's war as the "greatest threat to the world order."

"The fact that Russia crossed the border with an armed force, unprovoked, and has started this war with so much human suffering, so many innocent civilians dead in Ukraine—this is a direct violation of the United Nations Charter," said Burns.

Denisov, the Russian envoy, rebutted by blaming NATO expansion after the Cold War. Wilson, who along with Bili rebuked the Kremlin for violating UN principles, said European states turned to NATO because of security concerns posed by Russia.

Although Beijing says it doesn't support Moscow's war and seeks an end to hostilities, the Russian leadership, including Putin himself, has spoken positively about the Chinese position, which Denisov called "reasonable and balanced."

Denisov even suggested to the audience at Tsinghua that officials in Beijing might help convince counterparts in Kyiv to accept a negotiated settlement.

"That's why I hope China can signal to our Ukraine neighbors to be more realistic in their approach of the assessment of the situation," he said.