SHANGHAI — Scores of world leaders are blasting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but China has so far shied away from making its position clear on the conflict which it cautiously described only as a “special military operation.”
President Xi Jinping has yet to issue a statement as China’s foreign ministry called for both sides to exercise restraint “to prevent the situation from getting out of control.”
The government’s focus appeared to be on pulling some 6,000 Chinese nationals out of Ukraine, but there were signs that Beijing does not view Russia’s move across its neighbor’s border as an invasion.
“Why are you obsessed with China’s condemnation?” foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told foreign reporters Thursday.
“This is perhaps a difference between China and you Westerners. We won’t go rushing to a conclusion.
“Regarding the definition of an invasion, I think we should go back to how to view the current situation in Ukraine. The Ukrainian issue has other very complicated historical background that has continued today. It may not be what everyone wants to see.”
China has previously suggested that blame for the conflict lay with future plans to expand NATO, as well as the U.S. and its allies repeatedly warning over a Russian invasion.
“There is a sense that Beijing has been caught off guard by events on the ground,” said independent China analyst Adam Ni.
“Perhaps this is because it is trying to balance competing and irreconcilable objectives including its strategic relationship with Russia, its relations with the U.S. and EU, foreign policy principles and economic interests.”
Despite some condemnation, China’s huge social media space was awash with pro-Russian commentary, including calls on the Twitter-like Weibo app to buy Russian food and snacks to help ease the pain of Western sanctions.
This week, a social media editor at state-backed Beijing News accidentally posted an internal message on Weibo that called for staff to scour its online comments section for signs of anti-Russian messaging.
“From now on, please refrain from posting any Ukraine-related posts that are anti-Russia,” it said.
The Chinese Communist Party’s Youth League posted an online video of a Soviet folk song and military march after Russia moved into Ukraine.
It has been viewed over 2 million times with the most-liked comments applauding Russian leader Vladimir Putin, who declared war on Ukraine in a predawn televised address on Thursday.
Explosions and gunfire were heard through the day in Ukraine’s capital and elsewhere in the country, with at least 70 people reported killed.
Putin’s announcement comes just three weeks after Xi welcomed the Russian leader to Beijing as the Winter Olympics kicked off.
The pair agreed to a new “no limits” political and economic alliance that they described as a push back against expanding NATO to Russia’s border.
Putin has portrayed Thursday’s violence as an act of self-defense and a buffer against enlarging the military alliance – Ukraine is not a member but it has expressed interest in joining.
Critics say that Putin has shown little fear of NATO expansion in the past and was now using it as an excuse to justify the push into Ukraine, which was part of the former Soviet Union.
But Huang Renwei, former vice president at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences, said NATO expansionism was a crucial factor in the current conflict with roots tracing back to the Cold War.
“The Ukraine issue is very complicated,” Huang told a webinar on Friday commemorating the 50th anniversary of U.S.-China relations. “I don’t want to say we support Russia. We don’t support any war in this region, but if we trace the reasons that caused it, they are very complicated and not one-sided.”
China could draw lessons from Ukraine in its long-standing goal to reunify with Taiwan, said Susan Thornton, a retired U.S. diplomat and senior fellow at Yale University.
“There is a lot more space on the Taiwan question to work over a period of time to resolve it peacefully,” she told the video meeting. “And I think the leadership in China and the people of China certainly would prefer that scenario vastly to the one they see unfolding in Ukraine, no matter how they view the Western response because it is going to be terribly costly for many people.”
Additional reporting from Cissy Zhou in Hong Kong