The Chinese government has refused to describe Russia’s attacks on Ukraine as an “invasion,” as Beijing avoided joining a global chorus of condemnation against its major security partner.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying on Thursday called on “all parties to exercise restraint,” hours after Russia launched missile attacks on major cities in Ukraine, leaving residents in panic. She objected to calling it an invasion, and said the situation was caused by complex factors.
Hua said Russia had acted on its own without the backing from China. She instead slammed the United States for starting the conflict by providing weapons to Ukraine.
“China has always been calling on different sides to respect the legitimate security concerns of each other, try to solve problems with dialogue, and maintain regional peace and stability together,” Hua said at a press briefing on Thursday. “The most key question right now is, what role is the United States, the initiator of the Ukraine tensions, playing in this crisis?”
Russia’s recent aggression toward Ukraine has put Beijing in an awkward position. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s declaration of two pro-Russia areas in eastern Ukraine as independent states has run into Beijing’s longstanding position against separatism and diplomatic interference.
But at the same time, Russia and China have built close ties as they face growing tensions with Western democracies. Beijing might not want to challenge Moscow’s territorial ambitions, hoping it will have Russia’s back when it is placed under similar isolation by the West.
While Russia has faced wide-ranging sanctions from the West in hopes of deterring its aggression, China, its biggest trading partner, has recently signed new oil and gas deals with Moscow while refraining from criticizing its military actions.
Wen-Ti Sung, a Chinese politics expert with the Australian National University, said Beijing was trying to maintain “plausible deniability” as it waits to assess Russian actions before taking sides.
"I think China is trying to find a delicate balance in the situation,” Sung said. “It wants to not be seen as an enabler of Russian aggression toward Ukraine. And at the same time, China doesn't want to distance itself so much from Russia that you lose this potential Russian support in the future.”
The Chinese embassy in Ukraine has asked Chinese citizens to remain at home and stay away from windows and glasses. It suggested Chinese people display a Chinese national flag onto their vehicles.
Chinese state media have reported the bombings in Ukraine as well as Western countries’ sanctions against Russia albeit with complete technicality. Many Chinese nationalists view the conflicts as a result of power plays between Russia and the U.S.
Meanwhile, Taiwanese officials have expressed solidarity with Ukraine over the past month. President Tsai Ing-wen said Taiwan, a democracy that Beijing claims to be its own territory, could “empathize” with Ukraine, given the island had long faced military threats from China.
Following the conflict, some Chinese people have joked that one day their government will be able to occupy Taiwan in the same swift fashion.
“Look at this, you frogs. Ukraine will only set the example once,” said a comment on the microblogging site Weibo, which was liked more than 120,000 times. “Frog” is a derogatory term for Taiwanese. “According to the speed of modern warfare: sending out troops in the morning, unification at noon, COVID tests and handing out ID cards in the afternoon.”
But experts say the defense of Taiwan would be a different story, since the island is viewed as more strategically important and has received stronger military commitment from Washington. It’s also unlikely for Beijing to launch an attack on Taiwan in a year when Xi Jinping is expected to take up a historic third term as the Communist Party leader.
“It’s natural Taiwan will express normative support or rhetorical support for Ukraine,” Sung said. “Because if one day Taiwan ever comes under comparable threat from China, Taiwan would want others to do it for Taiwan, too.”
The Chinese foreign ministry has objected to the comparison between Taiwan and Ukraine, arguing that Taiwan has always been an inalienable part of China’s territory.