The Ukraine crisis is a major challenge for China

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Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose for a photograph during their meeting in Beijing, on February 4, 2022Image source, AFP
Image caption,
The ever-closer diplomatic relationship between Russia and China could be seen at the Winter Games

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 Mr Putin coming to Beijing as one of only a handful of known world leaders to attend.

Significantly, Mr 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.

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 New York Times report 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.

Media caption,

Mariko Oi explains why China is in a delicate position in the Ukraine conflict

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.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
A constant refrain from China's leaders is that it does not interfere in the internal affairs of others

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 Mr 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 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 are speculating that this change has been because of fears that Chinese people could be in danger as news reaches Ukraine of the Communist Party's media pumping up support for Mr 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 writes: "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.

Media caption,

Watch: Ros Atkins looks at the key moments of Russia's military build-up in the Ukraine crisis so far