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The Ukraine crisis is a major challenge for China 

a year ago

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By Stephen McDonell  Hours before Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a military operation in eastern Ukraine, the US accused Moscow and Beijing of combining to create a “profoundly illiberal” world order. The Ukraine-Russia crisis is posing a major challenge for China on many fronts. The ever-closer diplomatic relationship between Russia and China could be seen at the Winter Games with Putin coming to Beijing as one of only a handful of known world leaders to attend.  Significantly, Putin waited until just after the Games were over to recognise the two breakaway regions of Ukraine and send in troops to back them. In its public pronouncements, the Chinese government has urged all sides to de-escalate tensions in Ukraine.  But now that Russia has dispensed with all such restraint, where does that leave China’s official position as clashes escalate? The Chinese government thinks it cannot be seen to support war in Europe but also wants to strengthen military and strategic ties with Moscow. Ukraine’s number one trading partner is China and Beijing would ideally like to maintain good relations with Kyiv but this could be difficult to sustain when it is clearly so closely aligned with the government which is sending its troops into Ukrainian territory. There is also the potential for trade blowback on China from Western Europe if it is judged to be backing Russia’s aggression.  A shift in China’s foreign policy? Furthermore, a constant refrain from China’s leaders is that it does not interfere in the internal affairs of others and that other countries should not interfere in its internal affairs.  In a tweet, high-profile diplomat Liu Xiaoming reiterated that China had never “invaded other countries (or) engaged in proxy wars”, adding that it was committed to the path of peace.  But last week, in a surprising move, China abstained from a UN Security Council vote condemning the invasion of Ukraine.  Some analysts had expected Beijing to join Russia in voting against the motion, but the fact that it did not has been described as a “win for the west” – and is a sign of Beijing’s non-interference. China however, is still far from condemning the situation, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin refusing to refer to what is happening there as an “invasion”. There are also unconfirmed reports that Beijing had been aware of the situation and had deliberately turned a blind eye. According to a report by The New York Times citing unidentified US officials, the US had over the past months repeatedly urged China to intervene and tell Russia not to invade Ukraine.  However, the report adds that officials later found out that Beijing had shared this information with Moscow, saying the US was trying to sow discord and that China would not try to impede Russian plans. Drawing parallels on Taiwan For the Communist Party, what will worry it most is where that may leave its own people and their world view.  For this reason, it is manipulating and controlling talk about the Ukraine situation in the press and social media. It wasn’t going to be long before Taiwan was dragged into the mix. The self-governing island is seen by the party as essentially a rogue province that must be unified with the mainland. On Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, Chinese nationalists have used Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to call on their own nation to follow suit with comments like: “It’s the best chance to take Taiwan back now!”  When the Chinese government rejected the imposition of sanctions on Russia in recent days it knew it could face similar treatment if it moves to seize Taiwan by force, in what would be a bloody, costly exercise. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular press briefing in Beijing that China has never thought that sanctions were the best way to solve problems. But if Chinese citizens start joining the dots with Russia’s justification for invading Ukraine and applying it to their own country, this could upend the Chinese government’s entire explanation for its current borders.  Censorship and criticism on social media Vladimir Putin says he’s liberating Russian speakers inside Ukraine. What of the ethnic Mongolians, Koreans, Kyrgyz and the like who are now part of China? More potentially explosive for Beijing, what if Tibetans or Uyghurs renew calls for greater autonomy or even independence? That this does not happen is more important to Xi Jinping’s administration than anything. Given that, you only have to look at the remarks on Chinese social media to see the direction the party’s media is driving the population in terms of the way it should view Putin’s moves in Eastern Europe. On Monday, state-linked Beijing Daily reposted a statement from the Russia Embassy in Beijing, which called on the world not to assist the “neo-Nazi” government in Kyiv. On social media, comments on Ukraine and Russia are also tightly controlled.  Here is a flavour of the comments:  “Putin is awesome!”  “I support Russia, oppose US. That’s all I wanna say.”  “America always wants to create mess in the world!”  But there is clearly still an amount of caution on China’s part. It has walked back on an initial proclamation in which the Chinese embassy in Kyiv initially advised Chinese citizens to fly Chinese flags on their cars, to help one another out while “showing China’s strength”. A few days into the war, this changed to recommend that people do not “freely reveal your identity or display identifying signs”. Some speculate that this change is due to fears that Chinese people could be in danger as news reaches Ukraine of the Communist Party’s media pumping up support for Putin’s actions. However, there have been critics that still manage to make their voices heard. Over the weekend, five prominent Chinese academics wrote an open letter denouncing Russia’s actions.  “This is an invasion. As the Chinese saying goes: you cannot call a deer a horse,” said historian Xu Guoqi, according to a Reuters report. Hours after the letter was posted it was taken down by internet censors.  It’s difficult to get a true sense of how many people in China are calling for peace, when it’s unclear how many such posts have been censored – and how many posts criticising the US have been promoted. One social media user wrote: “I don't understand why so many people support Russia and Putin. Is invasion to be seen as justice? We should oppose any form of war!”  According to another: “Putin recognises the independence of Ukraine separatist regions, which is obviously interfering in the domestic affairs of another country.”  And there you have it. That last post is expressing precisely the conclusion which Beijing does not want its people coming to. It is the essence of the minefield the Chinese government is walking through. Asked if what is occurring right now in Ukraine amounts to an invasion, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a press conference that the “historical context is complicated” and that the current situation is “caused by all kinds of factors”. There is a major upheaval unfolding in Europe. Xi Jinping has some big choices to make in terms of how his country will deal with it. (BBC)  
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