At first, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seemed to put China in an awkward position.
Angry at what it saw as Western meddling in its own affairs—over human rights issues in Hong Kong and Xinjiang, for example—Beijing has for decades preached the sanctity of sovereignty. While the Chinese government did not explicitly condemn or endorse Russian aggression, it said its respect for a country’s sovereignty “equally” applied to Ukraine.
But in the two weeks since Russian troops and tanks flagrantly violated its neighbor’s borders, Beijing itself has shattered any illusion of neutrality in the Ukraine conflict.
After having blamed the U.S. and NATO for pushing tension between Russia and Ukraine, China is now promoting Russian claims that Washington is funding bioweapons development in Ukraine, assertions that the White House has denounced as “preposterous.”
Zhao Lijian, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, on Tuesday spread Russia’s claims that a large quantity of dangerous viruses were stored in U.S.-run facilities in Ukraine as part of a biological weapons program.
“Once again we urge the U.S. to give a full account of its biological military activities at home and abroad and subject itself to multilateral verification,” Zhao said in a press conference.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Wednesday denied the Russian claims about bioweapons development in Ukraine and criticized Beijing for amplifying “these conspiracy theories.” She said that the U.S. is compliant with international chemical and biological weapons convention and “does not develop or possess such weapons anywhere.”
“This is all an obvious ploy by Russia to try to justify its further premeditated, unprovoked, and unjustified attack on Ukraine,” she said.
By peddling Russia’s unsubstantiated claims about U.S. bioweapons in Ukraine, Beijing is further signaling its allegiance with Moscow and could antagonize Western governments united in their sanctions against Russia.
So far, Beijing has shown no signs that it would ever turn its back on Russia or join Western democracies in condemning its aggression.
Early in February, Russia and China declared that their friendship had “no limits.” In a visit to the Chinese capital during the Beijing Winter Olympics, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed deals with Chinese President Xi Jinping to boost trade between their countries, including a 30-year contract to supply gas to China through a new pipeline.
Hours after Russian forces attacked multiple Ukrainian cities on Feb. 24, Beijing announced an agreement to lift restrictions on wheat imports from all Russian regions, a move that U.S. ally Australia said amounted to throwing a lifeline to Moscow as Western sanctions mounted.
China has also refused to call the invasion an invasion, instead echoing Russian rhetoric that the war in Ukraine was a “special military operation.” It abstained from voting on the UN General Assembly’s resolution condemning the invasion, which 141 member countries supported. On Monday, the Chinese foreign minister called Russia his country’s “most important strategic partner.”
“The friendship between the two peoples is ironclad,” he added.
The White House’s rebuttal of Russia’s allegations and China’s promotion of those claims came hours after Russia repeated its years-old accusation that the U.S. was funding Ukrainian development of biological weapons, claims that Russian media amplified in the weeks before the country’s invasion of Ukraine.
Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova on Wednesday said Moscow had documents showing that Ukrainian health officials ordered the destruction of samples of pathogens such as plaque, cholera, and anthrax in the run-up to Russia’s Feb. 24 assault on the country. Ukraine has denied those allegations.
In response to such claims in 2020, the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine acknowledged it had a Biological Threat Reduction Program in Ukraine. Its priorities were to “consolidate and secure pathogens and toxins of security concern and to continue to ensure Ukraine can detect and report outbreaks caused by dangerous pathogens before they pose security or stability threats.”