By Ding Heng
Since war broken out in Ukraine, media outlets and analysts in the West have tended to describe China as a rhetorical and political supporter of Russia in this conflict. There appears to be a hidden agenda behind such a seemingly simplistic conclusion: binding China and Russia together to fabricate a hypothetical anti-West alliance. The reality is of course far from that.
Chinese diplomats have echoed Russia’s talking points that blamed NATO’s eastward expansion for the war in Ukraine, but this doesn’t equate to offering rhetorical support to Moscow. In fact, China has been all along calling for respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all parties, and the underlining message here is that China doesn’t support Russia’s practice of launching a military operation against Ukraine. Unfortunately, this part in China’s diplomatic language has rarely drawn attention from the West. On Google, none of the first-page search results obtained by typing in “China territorial integrity of all countries respect” leads to the website of a Western media outlet.
It’s also far-fetched to claim that Chinese media has promoted pro-Russia propaganda. As a radio host with CGTN, I over the past year have kept hearing my boss emphasize an editorial policy that there must be balance in any story or news topic discussion related to the Ukraine crisis. Apart from pro-Russia voices, I in person have invited many Western commentators who are critical of Russia to join my radio show. From the perspective of professional journalism, my own organization seems to have done a better job than mainstream Western media in the coverage of the Ukraine crisis. Rampant anti-Russia bias is, more often than not, perceived to be true on the part of Western media. Robin Aitken, who worked as a BBC reporter for 25 years, once said that Western media had failed in its reporting of Russia.
Beijing and Moscow do enjoy good ties. Some analysts might be skeptical about China’s claim that its relationship with Russia is not directed at any third country, but at least there is no sign that the relationship is directed at Ukraine. Neutrality means strictly refraining from taking a side in the conflict. On China’s part, there is no such thing as pro-Russia neutrality.
While the increased China-Russia trade is sometimes seen as a sign that China has provided an economic lifeline to help Russia navigate Western sanctions, what is often forgotten is that China donated humanitarian aid worth more than $2.1 million to Ukraine within one month after the war began. The big picture is that many non-Western countries including China don’t want to see a scenario in which the war in Ukraine deprives them of the opportunity to develop mutually-beneficial ties with Russia. Russia’s trade with the UAE, an US ally, rose 68% in 2022. The same year saw trade between Russia and Indonesia jump nearly 40%. From last year’s April to this year’s January, India’s purchases of Russian crude oil surged almost 400%.
There seems to be a lack of evidence which backs the US accusation that China is considering giving weapons to Russia for the Ukraine war. Of course, normal weapons trade has been going on between the two sides for a long time. However, according to recent research by the Stimson Center, a US think tank, Chinese exports of arms and ammunitions to Russia continued throughout the Ukraine war at 2019 and 2020 levels below $1 million per month. This indicates that China has by no means earmarked weapons supplies for Russia’s war effort in Ukraine.
China supplies the majority of rare earth metals used in the West. Given the key role of these metals in arms manufacturing, China could have curtailed its rare earth exports to the West if Beijing had wanted to assist Moscow militarily. China has not done so. In fact, the volume of Chinese rare earths shipped to Europe more than doubled in the first nine months last year due in large part to the Ukraine war, as Europe moved to supply weapons to Kyiv.
At the end of the day, China only wants to help restore peace between Russia and Ukraine through diplomacy as soon as possible. Both Moscow and Kyiv are Beijing’s friends, so China naturally hopes that these two friends could get along with each other in a security environment that is fair to both. Meanwhile, realistic economic interests are at stake for China. China is Ukraine’s top trading partner, with two-way trade estimated between $10 billion and $20 billion annually. Chinese investments in Ukraine total about $150 million per year. China’s Huawei has a 3-year deal to install 4G wireless services in the Kyiv metro system. As a ripple effect of the Ukraine war, the European Union has become even more conservative in strengthening economic ties with China. A prolonged war might end up benefiting some people, but certainly not China.
(The author is a host with CGTN Radio. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own.)