It wasn’t me: Beijing says it’s not to blame for the invasion of Ukraine

Foreign Affairs

China has not uttered an official peep of criticism of Russia for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, but it seems to be signaling that it would like to be seen as a neutral party.

Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng. Image via CCTV.

In a May 6 speech to think tanks from 20 countries, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Lè Yùchéng 乐玉成 said that blaming Beijing for the crisis is “absurd.” Le’s speech repeated Kremlin talking points, such as “[Beijing rejects] the attempt to pursue one’s own security at the expense of others.”

At the same time, Le also denied that Beijing was aware of the invasion or even endorsed it, creating some implicit separation between Beijing and Moscow. Chinese state media and Chinese Foreign Ministry spokespersons often explicitly blame Washington — not Moscow — for the invasion, but Le didn’t say which side caused the crisis. He did, however, accuse a “major country” of maneuvering to “use the crisis to weaken Russia and fight Russia to the ‘last Ukrainian.’”

Beijing tests out a more equidistant posture, but continues to blame the U.S.

Two weeks after China state news agency Xinhua’s dueling interviews with the Ukrainian and Russian foreign ministers, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs again sought to create perceptions of equidistance. At a press conference last week, wolf warrior Zhao Lijian 赵立坚 claimed, “Both Russia and Ukraine appreciate China’s impartial and objective position on the Ukraine issue.”

While Beijing may be reconsidering its level of rhetorical support for Moscow, there are probably limits to any recalibration. Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 still hasn’t spoken with his Ukrainian counterpart, and it is clear that Beijing continues to seek to drive a wedge between Europe and the United States. In calls with his French and German counterparts this week, Xi urged Europeans to take “security into their own hands,” in an unsubtle reference to the United States’ security role in Europe. Relatedly, the Chinese Communist Party’s newspaper, the People’s Daily, started a new article series on Saturday claiming that the U.S. is profiting from the crisis.

Beijing pushes back on Finnish and Swedish accession to NATO

In a clear reference to Finland and Sweden’s (likely) accession to NATO, Le Yucheng warned on May 5 that “to resolve the crisis by further expansion would be like correcting one mistake with another. It will only lead to greater disaster.” Le’s comments were amplified approvingly by Russian state media the following day.

On May 6, the People’s Daily asked, “If NATO expands north, how serious will the consequences be?” According to the newspaper, “NATO’s repeated eastward expansion after the Cold War pushed Russia into a corner step by step. Not only did it fail to make Europe safer, but it sowed the seeds of conflict.”

NATO’s northern expansion is regarded as a near-certainty by Moscow, and Beijing also seems to be doing little to oppose it. The P.R.C.’s embassies in Finland and Sweden don’t appear to have discussed expansion on their (English and Chinese-language) websites or Twitter accounts.