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The battle for Ukraine could test the limits of closer ties between China and Russia

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose during their meeting in Beijing, on February 4.
Alexei Druzhinin
Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose during their meeting in Beijing, on February 4.

BEIJING — Lisa is a Ukrainian student and model who now lives in Canada after spending several years in China. Until recently, she shared videos of food and fashion with her 400,000 followers on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok.

But when Russia invaded Ukraine last month, she switched to posting Chinese-language updates on the conflict, while pushing back on a flurry of Russian disinformation on social media.

The reaction she got was unexpected.

"Every day, I can receive thousands of messages where people say, 'I wish you death — go back to Ukraine and die together,' " she told NPR. Those threats are why Lisa requested we use only her first name.

The vitriol she encountered is indicative of the close but uneasy relationship between China and Russia. Inside China, social media discussions and state media essays supporting Moscow's invasion of Ukraine are widespread, while posts expressing support for the Ukrainian government have been censored or viciously mocked.

Officially, China has taken a neutral stance on the Russian invasion and has not condemned the assault. Yet just weeks before the attack, China's leader, Xi Jinping, and Russia President Vladimir Putin met in person and issued a sweeping joint statement announcing that the two countries enjoy a "no limits" partnership.

Last week, as the invasion of Ukraine got underway, China's Foreign Ministry pinned the blame for it on U.S. meddling and NATO's expansion.

Spokesperson Hua Chunying brought up a 1999 incident that occurred during the Kosovo conflict in which the U.S., under the auspices of a NATO coalition, bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, killing three Chinese journalists. Then-President Bill Clinton apologized for the attack, calling it an accident. Beijing, however, has always characterized the incident as a deliberate act of aggression.

"NATO still owes the Chinese people a debt of blood," Hua said.

Despite past differences, China and Russia share similar aims — namely, to fracture U.S. and NATO power. Even so, a bloody Russian assault and mounting civilian casualties could mean that Beijing's closer ties with the Kremlin will cost more than Xi had anticipated.

Putin and Xi have mutual interests

The recent China-Russia entente is an unusual historical turn for two countries that have clashed ideologically and militarily in the last century.

But by the end of 1991, the Soviet Union had dissolved — a moment both Xi and Putin cite as pivotal in shaping their respective worldviews. For Xi, the end of the Soviet Union was a warning that a rising China could face risks from within.

In a 2013 speech to other Chinese Communist Party leaders that was later leaked, the Chinese leader noted that when the USSR finally collapsed, the legions of apparatchiks who had long propped up the system utterly failed to defend it. "Proportionally, the Soviet Communist Party had more members than we do, but nobody was man enough to stand up and resist," Xi said.

Putin summed up his view on the collapse of the Soviet Union in a famous speech delivered in 2005 in which he called it the "greatest geopolitical catastrophe" of the 20th century.

Joseph Torigian, a historian at American University and the author of a forthcoming book on Sino-Soviet relations, says both Putin and Xi "have an idea that chaos must be avoided at all costs."

"They believe that when people are given the freedom to do whatever they want, they're easily exploited," Torigian says.

China and Russia also find themselves united by a common rival: the United States.

"The U.S. was already bashing China, and I think that really basically pushed China and Russia together to some extent," says Wang Huiyao, the director of a Beijing think tank, the Center for China and Globalization.

Now Xi and Putin visit each other's countries frequently. Putin is the first foreign leader Xi has met since China closed its borders internationally because of the COVID-19 pandemic. A Beijing museum exhibition featuring some of the state gifts that Putin has given Xi over the years — including a Russian smartphone and a replica of a Russian Orthodox church — opened late last month, the same day Russia sent troops into two separatist Ukrainian territories.

This month, China was among five countries that voted against holding a debate on the Ukraine crisis. It also abstained in a U.N. General Assembly vote deploring the Russian invasion. As part of last month's joint agreement, the day after Russia attacked Ukraine, China also removed all import restrictions on Russian wheat.

Such positions have forced China to choose between a rapidly solidifying coalition of economically powerful democracies on the one hand and its partnership with Russia on the other.

"China is actually very worried to see such a situation continue, as it has its own security reasons to see a peaceful Europe," says Wang, adding that Beijing nonetheless "certainly also disapproves of some of NATO's behavior as well, particularly the U.S. leading not only NATO expansion in Eastern Europe, but also expansion in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait."

Backing Russia could be politically costly

It is unclear how much Xi knew about Putin's plans to attack Ukraine when they announced their limitless partnership right before the Beijing Winter Olympics last month. Either way, China's partnership with Russia has become more of a liability than Beijing likely bargained.

Not condemning the Ukraine invasion has forced China to back down from its principles of territorial integrity and sovereignty, which are a traditional cornerstone of its foreign policy.

"As the Chinese try to reconcile diverse interests that simply cannot be reconciled, they are tacking back and forth, struggling to have all those things and having to jettison one or another of those things on any given day of the week," says Evan Feigenbaum, a vice president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Only until the day after Russia's invasion did China begin looking into evacuation plans for its own citizens in Ukraine — suggesting that Beijing may have been caught unaware by the invasion or at least by the intensity of it.

"A careful examination of the events suggests that China was, in fact, played," wrote Yun Sun, co-director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

The Russian invasion likely does not sit well with Beijing's leadership. If it knew beforehand, it now risks being perceived as an enabler of Russian aggression. On the contrary, if China's leadership was truly blindsided, that suggests a failure on the part of its intelligence and foreign policy ministries.

If true, such duplicity, along with the glare of international opprobrium, could force China's leadership to reevaluate its relationship with Russia. The conclusion may be that it is too much of a political burden, especially since China's economy relies very little on Russia but is dependent on Western trade.

Continuing to stand by the Kremlin — especially if the assault on Ukraine becomes increasingly brutal, as seems likely — could also lend fodder to Beijing's critics abroad.

"There are already wolves circling who saw that this close Putin-Xi relationship was actually going to be very good for driving a harder agenda against China," says Jude Blanchette, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In just a week since the fighting started, the geopolitical landscape has rapidly changed, a shift that leaves China on the losing end. Meanwhile, Russia's aggression has succeeded in galvanizing the U.S., the European Union and Japan — precisely the same coalition that Washington has sought to contain China.

Says Blanchette: "You know, you can bet your bottom dollar that there's a lot of people in European and Western capitals who are going to do their damnedest to make sure China isn't able to wipe the stink off of them from their enablement of Moscow."

Aowen Cao contributed research from Beijing.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.