War in Ukraine is a severe test of Beijing’s new axis with Moscow | Yu Jie

President Vladimir Putin’s full military escalation in Ukraine has unsettled his seemingly best friend in international affairs, the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, who has invested in the bilateral relationship personally and politically. Beijing’s axis with Moscow was recently strengthened during the 2022 Winter Olympics, with their joint declaration to proclaim “their cooperation with no limit”. The western foreign affairs community then rushed to conclude that Moscow and Beijing were forming – if one had not already been formed – a “strategic alliance” aimed at destabilising the liberal, rules-based world order. Some in the west assume Beijing will inevitably support Russia’s military actions in Ukraine.

However, cooperation would have to come with some substantial limits to avoid undermining Beijing’s own priorities and interests in the eyes of Chinese foreign policy planners. For various reasons, the Kremlin’s latest military exercise is both a conundrum and a source of equally unexpected opportunities for Beijing.

In line with a difficult balancing act, the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, had publicly stated that all countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity should be protected, including Ukraine’s; and Russia and Ukraine should return to the negotiating table. That is widely regarded as the most clearcut position China has delivered on the current situation and was echoed by a phone call between Xi and Putin today.

China’s stance crystallises two elements: first, it does not support the Kremlin’s move against Ukraine, and views Moscow’s actions as a violation of national sovereignty and the UN charter – one of the cardinal principles of Beijing’s foreign policies since 1949. Second, and most important, China strongly implies there is no comparison between Ukraine and Taiwan – the former is a sovereign state and the latter is not a full UN member but a unique polity, seen as a renegade province by Beijing. But…

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