The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A year later, China blames U.S. ‘hegemony’ — not Russia — for war in Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Chinese Communist Party's foreign policy chief Wang Yi at the Kremlin in Moscow on Wednesday. (Anton Novoderezhkin/AP)
8 min

Ahead of the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China has launched a public diplomacy offensive to wrest control of the narrative about its role in the conflict, trying to clear itself of accusations that it has sided with Russia while accusing the United States of turning the conflict into a “proxy” war.

Few of the positions staked out by Chinese officials in a flurry of speeches and documents this week are new, but they have underscored why Beijing continues to stand by Moscow even as it professes “deep concern” about the conflict: It considers the United States — not Russia — the progenitor of global insecurity, including in Ukraine.

Beijing insists it is neutral in the conflict, but those claims routinely clash with its rhetorical and diplomatic support for Russia.

That was illustrated this week, with China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, arriving in Moscow in a show of solidarity with Russia — especially when contrasted with President Biden’s unannounced trip to Kyiv, where he walked the streets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“It is China’s interest that Russia not fail but it’s also in China’s interest that Russia not escalate this to a broader conflict with the West, or one that has the potential to escalate beyond Ukraine… The political benefit of the partnership between them is that their narratives support each other in terms of opposition to the west, opposition to democracy and offering an alternative. - Robert M. Gates (Video: Washington Post Live)

Analysis: Biden in Kyiv and Warsaw is a reminder of who really leads Europe

The China-Russia relationship has stood the test of stormy international circumstances and remained “as stable as Mount Tai,” Wang told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday, using a Chinese idiom for rock-solid.

“Crisis and chaos appear repeatedly before us, but within crisis there is opportunity,” he said.

By actively responding to the challenges of the times, the two nations can bring about an even deeper comprehensive strategic partnership, and that relationship “will not be overpowered by a third party’s coercion or pressure” because it is built on a strong economic, political and cultural foundation, Wang added.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping is expected to visit Russia some time this year, but the Kremlin declined Wednesday to be drawn on reports that it could be as soon as April.

From the beginning of the war, China has tried to protect its rapidly deepening economic and political ties with Russia at the same time it tried to assure Western audiences that it wants peace and should not be a target for sanctions.

But as China’s role as a lifeline for an isolated Russia grows, it is becoming harder for Beijing to stay on the sidelines.

The Foreign Ministry in Beijing has declined to comment on reports that Xi will deliver a “peace speech” on Friday, exactly one year since Russia launched its invasion, saying only that China will issue a document clarifying its stance on the day.

The problem with China’s story of being an honest broker is that Russia remains a “key ally in the effort to push back against the U.S.-led order,” said Arthur Kroeber, partner at the research firm Gavekal Dragonomics.

“The true purpose of Xi’s speech” — assuming it takes place — “will be to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its European allies, by suggesting that China, not the U.S., is the real advocate of a peaceful resolution of the Russia-Ukraine war,” he wrote in a note on Wednesday.

Putin assures Russia he will win the war, then suspends nuclear arms deal

The latest propaganda blitz also provides a clearer picture of Xi’s foreign policy priorities as he embarks on a third term in power. Bringing about an end to the war is only one item in Xi’s ambitious agenda to reshape the global order so that the United States and its allies cannot slow China’s rise or challenge its territorial claims. And to that end, China remains closely aligned with Russia.

An attempt to justify China’s stance on the war in Ukraine to a conflicted domestic audience, the new wave of propaganda is also a way to rebuff growing concern that Beijing will step up support for Putin’s war effort as it enters its second year.

Beijing has rejected U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s warning that China might be considering providing “lethal” support to Russia as a “wild accusation” and accused the United States of wanting Ukraine to “fight till the last Ukrainian.”

“It’s plain for the world to see who is calling for dialogue and striving for peace and who is adding fuel to the fire, handing out knives and instigating hostility,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said on Tuesday.

Ding Chun, director of the Center for European Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, said Blinken’s claim was a “strategic statement” meant to warn China. “It’s not a substantive accusation, but rather a part of U.S. strategy to tell China not to have the intention [to do so],” he said.

But it’s not just the United States that is concerned about China’s intentions. Zelensky told the German daily Die Welt this week that he hoped China would make a “pragmatic assessment” and avoid allying itself with Russia’s war effort, because if it did “there will be a world war.”

In response to fears that the conflict could expand, Wang Wen, a professor at Renmin University in Beijing, said it was wrong for Zelensky to speculate. Instead, “he should thank China for promoting humanitarian aid to Ukraine. If China really were to support Russia, then Zelensky’s life would get even worse,” he said.

(In the month after the invasion, China gave Ukraine $725,000 of humanitarian aid and $1.5 million in other forms of aid. It hasn’t announced additional support since then.)

Khodorkovsky warns West of war with China if Russia wins in Ukraine

Seeing the United States as a source of instability — while giving aggression from Russia and other authoritarian states a pass — is a longtime stance of the Chinese Communist Party. But under Xi, it is a worldview that has become more deeply embedded into China’s foreign policy and echoed by its national security establishment.

Lu Xiang, a researcher at the state-run Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said the true threat to Ukraine’s autonomy is Western support. Having once been part of the Soviet Union means that “if a big country from outside the region uses Ukraine as a chess piece to weaken Russia’s strategic interests, then that means [Ukraine’s] sovereign interests will of necessity be suppressed,” he said.

At the core of Xi’s priorities for promoting China’s security is an effort to counteract the United States’ influence in the international order, often by enlisting countries that share similar grievances.

Chinese complaints about American “abuse of hegemony” in global military, political and economic affairs were listed in a five-page document issued by the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Monday, which called the Ukraine conflict a case of the United States “repeating its old tactics of waging proxy … wars.”

Separately this week, China issued a “concept paper” that staked out positions on global hot-spot issues, from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the Pacific islands.

China’s foreign minister, Qin Gang, released the document at an event in Beijing, running through a string of broad commitments to uphold the U.N. charter, reject the use of nuclear weapons and protect territorial integrity, while also taking thinly veiled swipes at the United States for “abusing unilateral sanctions” and building security blocs.

The document, which did not mention Russia, made only passing reference to the “Ukraine crisis” as an issue to be resolved through dialogue. It repeated that “legitimate security concerns of all countries” should be taken seriously — a phrase often used by Beijing in defense of Moscow.

Qin also used the event to call for countries to stop “clamoring about ‘Ukraine today, Taiwan tomorrow.’”

Since the start of the war, China has tried to draw a distinction between Russia’s actions and its own escalating military aggression in the Taiwan Strait. For many in the self-governed island democracy, however, the war has been a wake-up call for the need to be better prepared to repel an attack from China.

Missing from the newly proactive stance China laid out this week is any indication that Beijing is willing to take a leading role in peace negotiations.

“Neither Russia nor Ukraine can defeat each other completely in the short term,” said Fudan University’s Ding. “China has emphasized the need to stop the war and promote peace, but it has not explicitly said that it wants to be a mediator in this war, and it is very difficult to do so in practice. Although China has a better relationship with Russia, it is a question of to what extent Russia will listen to China’s thoughts.”