China on Thursday denied backing Russia’s military assault in Ukraine as it trod a cautious line in response to a conflict that many Chinese analysts just days before were predicting wouldn’t happen.
“As for American hints that Russia had China backing it up for this operation, I’m sure Russia would not be pleased to hear it,” Hua said. “We won’t be like America and provide Ukraine a large amount of military equipment. Russia as a powerful nation also does not need China or other countries to provide [military assistance].”
Hua added that “China did not wish to see what happened in Ukraine today.”
In her remarks, Hua called out NATO for owing China a “debt of blood” over the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia by U.S. warplanes in 1999. Bringing up that incident was probably an effort to drum up anti-U.S. sentiment against the backdrop of the Russian attacks on Ukraine.
The incident remains a sore spot for many in China who are suspicious of the official NATO explanation that it was an accident caused by outdated maps. On Thursday evening, that comment was the top trending hashtag with 460 million views on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo.
The Russian attacks are the greatest test yet for an emerging Moscow-Beijing partnership, which has recently shown signs of evolving from what many considered a “marriage of convenience” to something resembling a formal alliance.
In recent weeks, China has voiced support for Russia’s “legitimate security concerns” but has balanced that with calls for restraint and negotiations, echoing the approach China took during the 2014 invasion of Crimea. Beijing appeared to be repeating that tightrope walk on Thursday, as it called for calm while news of the attacks sent regional markets plunging.
On Thursday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called for a return to dialogue in a call with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. China both respects every country’s territorial integrity and understands the Kremlin’s “reasonable security concerns."
Despite the outward show of mutual support between the two countries, there have been indications that China was caught flat-footed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of military action.
Minutes after the declaration, China’s representative to the United Nations, Zhang Jun, told a Security Council meeting: “We believe that the door to a peaceful solution to the Ukraine situation is not fully shut, nor should it be.”
Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center, noted Tuesday that the Chinese policy community appeared to be in “shock” at the sudden escalation of fighting after having “subscribed to the theory that Putin was only posturing and that U.S. intelligence was inaccurate as in the case of invading Iraq.”
For instance, in an interview on Tuesday, Ma Bin, a Russia expert at Fudan University in Shanghai, told the Chinese publication Yicai that the ball was in Ukraine’s court and “there would not be a war” because Russia still preferred a diplomatic resolution.
That same day, when China warned its nationals in Ukraine about a worsening situation, it did not tell them to leave the country. On Thursday, with explosions going off nearby, many of the 6,000 Chinese passport holders in the country took to Weibo to call for help.
“When can China evacuate?” asked a user with the handle LumpyCut. “We are in Kyiv near the airport. I just heard three enormous bombings and can estimate the size of the mushroom clouds by sight.”
The Chinese Embassy responded to the outcry with a statement urging everyone to stay put and not to panic as well as suggesting that anyone traveling long distances by car place a Chinese flag in an obvious place on the vehicle’s body. It did not mention evacuation plans.
In recent weeks, Chinese experts have argued that de-escalation was possible even as they adopted Russia’s view of the conflict. Wang Yiwei, director of the Center for European Studies at Renmin University, wrote in late January that only the actions of Ukraine or the United States could bring about a war, but because the former lacked “gall” and the latter lacked strength for a direct conflict with Russia, tensions could be dispelled.
In an interview on Thursday, Wang defended his prediction as being primarily about the possibility of a direct conflict between the United States and Russia, not fighting in eastern Ukraine.
While he said China always supports the principle of protecting national sovereignty, “there are some countries that are being used by external forces as a tool to harm the territorial integrity of other nations.” He added, “Lots of people in China say that Ukraine did not manage the balance between powers and that passive approach led to Russia taking this extreme measure.”
In the run-up to Putin’s announcement, China continued to blame the United States and NATO for being instigators of the conflict, brushing aside warnings from the White House about the Kremlin’s intention to invade.
“A key question here is what role the U.S., the culprit of current tensions surrounding Ukraine, has played,” Hua, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, said Wednesday. “If someone keeps pouring oil on the flame while accusing others of not doing their best to put out the fire, such kind of behavior is clearly irresponsible and immoral.”
Hua also rejected suggestions that China might adhere to U.S.-led sanctions against Russia, pointing to China’s long-held stance against the use of sanctions adopted outside of U.N. deliberations.
But China’s support for Russia has also stopped short of direct approval for military action. Over the weekend, Wang, the Chinese foreign minister, reiterated that all countries’ sovereignty must be respected, adding that “Ukraine is not an exception.”
Such hesitation comes, however, during a time of growing strategic alignment between Moscow and Beijing, built primarily on shared disdain for the United States and the Western-led world order.
Hawkish commentators in China were quick to explain Putin’s attack on Thursday as the result of provocation from the United States. “That the situation came to today’s step is due to spiraling escalation,” Fu Qianshao, a military commentator, told the nationalist Shanghai Observer. “Russia had already said many times that it would withdraw troops, but America always promoted an atmosphere of conflict.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article relied on an inaccurate quotation of Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chuying’s remarks provided by state broadcaster CCTV. She said that Russia “would not” — rather than “would” — be pleased to hear about Chinese backing for Russia’s military attacks on Ukraine. The article has been corrected.
Lyric Li in Seoul and Pei Lin Wu and Vic Chiang in Taipei contributed to this report.