A woman cycles past a billboard supporting Ukraine in the wake of the Russian invasion, outside the Canadian embassy in Beijing
A woman cycles past a billboard supporting Ukraine after Russia’s invasion, outside the Canadian embassy in Beijing. China’s ‘pro-Russia neutrality’ is increasingly at odds with international opinion © Reuters

Vladimir Putin’s brutal tactics in Ukraine are ratcheting up international pressure on Chinese president Xi Jinping, whose “no-limits” partnership with the Russian leader and reluctance to criticise Moscow’s aggression stands in stark contrast to global condemnation and isolation of the Kremlin.

On Tuesday, Ukraine put Xi’s administration on the spot after the two countries’ foreign ministers spoke by phone. Dmytro Kuleba, according to a foreign ministry statement, asked Wang Yi “to force Russia to stop its armed aggression against the Ukrainian people”, citing Beijing’s strong relationship with Moscow.

“[Wang] reaffirmed China’s unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” Kyiv added. “He assured Kuleba of China’s readiness to make every effort to end the war on Ukrainian soil through diplomacy, including as a permanent member of the UN Security Council.”

Last week, China declined to support a UN resolution condemning the invasion, opting to abstain instead.

China’s version of the call, released after Ukraine’s, confirmed that Wang “deplored” the violence and had confirmed his government’s respect for “the territorial integrity of all countries”.

Wang, however, qualified the latter point by repeating Russia’s argument that “the security of one country should not be achieved at the expense of the security of other countries [or] by expanding military blocs”.

That is Beijing and Moscow’s way of saying that the US and Nato expansion after the collapse of the Soviet Union were to blame for the crisis, rather than Putin. Wang also said that Ukraine “looks forward to China playing a role in realising a ceasefire”, without explicitly committing Beijing to brokering talks.

On Wednesday night, China abstained from a vote at the UN general assembly that overwhelmingly backed a resolution calling on Russia to withdraw its troops.

Courtney Fung of Macquarie University said: “China’s relationship with Russia, growing overseas interests and concern for its international reputation make it a key actor for Ukraine to approach for mediation.”

Fung noted that Beijing had helped mediate international disputes involving North Korea, Afghanistan and Syria. But it did not offer to play such a role when Russia annexed the Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 or when it invaded Georgia in 2008.

Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, speaks in Geneva last month
Wang Yi, China’s foreign minister, said ‘the security of one country should not be achieved . . .  by expanding military blocs’ © Reuters

Chinese participation in any talks over Ukraine, Fung added, could help Beijing present itself “as a responsible state working to calm conflict [and] offset international criticism by showing that maintaining relations with all sides is a useful resource towards political solutions”.

Artyom Lukin, a China-Russia relations expert at Far Eastern Federal University in Vladivostok, said Wang’s remarks were notable for “some changes in nuance”. But, he added, “while mentioning civilian casualties [the Chinese] don’t state who is inflicting them [and] also repeated their lines . . . in support of Russia’s position”.

A Chinese government adviser, who asked not to be named, said officials in Beijing understood that Xi’s thinly veiled support for Putin, which has been described as a “pro-Russia neutrality”, was increasingly at odds with international opinion.

But he added that the alliance, officially characterised at a recent Xi-Putin summit as a “no-limits” partnership, had been years in the making and could not be easily abandoned. This was especially true in light of what Beijing believes is Washington’s unrelenting campaign to prevent China’s rightful rise as an economic and military power.

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Joe Biden said that “Putin is now isolated from the world more than ever” and warned Xi not “to bet against the American people”.

Paul Haenle, a former Asia adviser to presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama, said the personal relationship Xi had forged with Putin over the past decade made it almost impossible for Beijing to distance itself from Moscow.

The pair have met in person 38 times since Xi was appointed head of the Chinese Communist party a decade ago, have celebrated birthdays together and refer to each other as “best friends”.

“It’s politically risky for anyone within the Chinese system to come forward and suggest that maybe China should reconsider the merits of such a close strategic alignment with Russia,” Haenle said. “That could be viewed as direct criticism of Xi.

“At this point, it may not be possible for the bureaucracy, the foreign ministry [or] senior party advisers to recommend any shifts. It has to come straight from the very top, from Xi himself.”

Less than a week into the invasion, China has been confronted by galvanised European political unity against Russia and widespread public support for Ukraine. That shift was illustrated by Germany’s decision to amend its foreign and defence policies to confront the Russian threat.

“The more isolated Russia gets and the more united the EU is, the more difficult it will be for Beijing to simultaneously keep close relations with Moscow and good ties with the EU,” said Zsuzsa Anna Ferenczy, a former political adviser at the European parliament now with National Dong Hwa University in Taiwan.

“There is now an appetite for action in Europe to more forcefully and effectively build up deterrence and resilience in the face of authoritarian threats and economic coercion of authoritarian states.”

Additional reporting by Maiqi Ding in Beijing

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