(220307) -- BEIJING, March 7, 2022 (Xinhua) -- Journalists attend a press conference held by Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi via video link in Beijing, capital of China, March 7, 2022. Wang answered questions of journalists from home and abroad on China's foreign policy and foreign relations during the press conference on the sidelines of the fifth session of the 13th National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing. (Xinhua/Xing Guangli)

OPINION – The Evolution of China’s Position on the Russian-Ukrainian Conflict

Since the Russian military invasion into Ukraine on February 24, the position of the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the Russian-Ukraine conflicts has been evolving.

On February 25, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin had a phone conversation in which Putin introduced the historical context of Ukraine and Russia’s military operation there. Putin said that the US and NATO had ignored Russia’s legitimate security concerns and pushed their military eastward into Ukraine, thereby challenging Russia’s strategic bottom line.

In response, President Xi said that the sudden changes in Ukraine’s situation raised international attention, and that China decides its position “based on the merits of the Ukrainian issue itself.” Xi called for countries to drop their Cold War mentality, to respect the security concerns of various countries, and to engage in security dialogue and negotiation.

The PRC side, according to Xi, supports the Russian side to negotiate with the Ukrainian side, and the Chinese government is consistent in its respect of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries. Xi added that China is ready to work with the international community to realize the concept of common, comprehensive, and sustainable security, to uphold the international system with the UN at its core, and to support the international order based on international law.

On the same day, the PRC State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi delineated the Chinese position on the Ukrainian issue during his phone talks with the British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell, and the French diplomatic counsellor Emmanuel Bonne.

Firstly, according to Wang, China firmly respects and safeguards the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries and abides by the principles of the UN Charter. Secondly, China advocates the concept of common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security. Thirdly, China did not want to see the evolution of the Ukrainian issue in a conflictual way.

Fourthly, the PRC side supports and encourages all diplomatic efforts conducive to a peaceful settlement of the Ukrainian crisis. Fifthly, China believes that the UN Security Council plays a constructive role in resolving the Ukrainian crisis because regional peace, stability and security of all countries are the priorities. These five points form the foundation of the PRC’s foreign policy toward the Russian-Ukraine conflicts.

On March 7, Wang Yi stressed that calmness and rationality are necessary to resolve the Ukrainian crisis. Emphasizing the commitment to the UN Charter’s purposes and principles, he repeated that China respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries and appealed to the need for dialogue, negotiation, and peaceful means for resolving disputes among countries.

China is willing to play a constructive role in facilitating dialogue for peace and to work with the international community to mediate international disputes. At the same time, Wang appealed to the international community to prevent a large-scale humanitarian crisis.

Apart from the five points that Wang had mentioned on February 25, he added six points in preventing a humanitarian crisis in Ukraine: (1)  efforts should be made to ensure that humanitarian operations should abide by the principle of neutrality and impartiality and avoid politicization; (2) attention should be given to the displaced people in and from Ukraine and shelter should be provided for them; (3) the protection of civilians and the prevention of secondary humanitarian disasters; (4) efforts should be made to guarantee safe, smooth, rapid and unimpeded humanitarian activities and access; (5) the safe departure and safety of foreign nationals in Ukraine should be ensured; and (6) support should be given to the UN’s role of coordinating humanitarian work.

Wang added that the Red Cross Society of China would provide emergency and humanitarian supplies to Ukraine. Finally, he expressed the PRC’s gratitude to those countries which offered support in evacuating Chinese nationals from Ukraine.

On the same day, Wang Yi emphasized that the Taiwan issue is different in nature from the Ukrainian issue and that the two are not comparable. He reiterated that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China’s territory, but the Ukrainian issue stemmed from the contention between Ukraine and Russia. He criticized some people for using the Ukrainian issue to keep undermining Chinese sovereignty and territorial integrity over Taiwan.

On March 8, during a video summit with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, President Xi Jinping urged Russia and Ukraine to have joint peace and he asked the two sides to maintain the momentum of negotiations, overcome difficulties, and bring about peaceful outcomes.

Xi said that the Ukrainian situation was “worrisome”, and the PRC side was saddened by the outbreak of war in Europe. The PRC, according to Xi, maintains the principle that all countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity must be respected, that the principles of the UN Charter must be fully observed and that the legitimate security concerns of all countries must be considered seriously. Xi called for the prevention of the tense situation from being escalated further, while commending the mediation efforts by France and Germany.

He stressed that China put forward a six-point initiative on humanitarian assistance and supplies in Ukraine. However, Xi added that sanctions would have impacts on global finance, energy, transportation, the supply chain’s stability, and the global economy. As such, China advocates “a vision of common, comprehensive, cooperate e and sustainable security” while supporting France and Germany to promote a balanced, effective, and sustainable European security framework for European security. Finally, President Xi expressed China’s hope to see “equal-footed dialogue” among the European Union, Russia, the US, and NATO.

On March 9, PRC Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian criticized an American newspaper for disseminating disinformation about China on the Ukrainian issue. The newspaper claimed without any concrete evidence that China had so-called “prior knowledge” of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine.

On March 11, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang remarked that utmost efforts should be made to support Russia and Ukraine in their ceasefire negotiations, that the PRC encourages efforts beneficial to a peaceful settlement. Li delivered his remarks at a press conference at the end of the National People’s Congress meeting. As with Wang Yi, Li said that China is willing to work with the international community to bring about the return of peace in Ukraine.

Li described the situation in Ukraine as “disconcerting,” adding that the urgent task is to prevent the situation from getting out of control. He called for restraint from Russia and Ukraine while calling for the avoidance of a humanitarian crisis in Ukraine. As with President Xi, Premier Li added that the sanctions imposed on Russia would hurt the economic recovery of the world.

A careful analysis of the evolution of the PRC’s position on the Russian-Ukrainian conflicts shows several characteristics. First, the official Chinese media does not use the term “invasion” to refer to the Russian military operation in Ukraine, demonstrating the PRC’s official preference of adopting a more neutral position, especially as China reiterates that it respects the security concerns and sovereignty claims of all countries.

Second, the official Chinese view of sanctions as hurting the world economy can be interpreted as a relatively neutral position, although some observers have interpreted this stance as slightly tilted toward Russia. Third, the PRC consistently appeals to all sides for dialogue, negotiation and peaceful settlement – a position seen in the remarks of President Xi, Premier Li and Foreign Minister Wang and a stance showing the persistence of the Chinese neutrality.

Fourth, Wang Yi’s remark that Ukraine’ situation cannot be compared with that of Taiwan is an important one, for Taiwan has been historically speaking and traditionally a part of mainland Chinese territory.

But some Taiwan separatists and some foreign analysts have grasped the opportunity of the Ukrainian crisis to exaggerate the so-called “imminent” PRC’s military threat to Taiwan. Those people who articulate the “China threat” theory have ignored the combined use of soft (united front and socio-economic appeals to Taiwan for integration with the mainland) and hard (military force as a last resort) instruments of Beijing’s policy toward Taiwan.

Fourth, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian’s criticism of the US media was important, for China was evacuating Chinese nationals immediately after February 24. Any foreign news reports making unfound accusations on China could have the unintended consequence of affecting the safety of the Chinese nationals who were evacuated from Ukraine.

In conclusion, the official position of China on the Ukrainian crisis has evolved quickly and immediately after the Russian military invasion of Ukraine on February 24. Basically, China has been adopting a relatively neutral position toward the Ukrainian crisis, emphasizing the need for dialogue, negotiation and peaceful settlement, and reiterating the importance of preventing a humanitarian crisis. It is only hoped that the Russian-Ukrainian conflict can and will be contained rather than being spiralled out of control further in the coming months.