China walks a tightrope in not criticising Russia - while trying not to alienate the US and the EU

ITV Asia Correspondent Debi Edwards reports from China on how Beijing has reacted to the invasion

As explosions were being heard, and air raids sounded in Kyiv, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman was asked, yes or no, has Russia invaded Ukraine and she could not give a direct answer.

Instead, she attacked the aggressive manner of questioning from one of the foreign journalists at today’s press briefing in Beijing.

That came after an hour of questions during which Hua Chunying refused to accept that what we are witnessing in Ukraine is an invasion; a "full-scale" invasion, according to the Ukrainian foreign minister. 

The MOFA spokeswoman told us she was drawing her conclusion from a Russian military statement in which it was stated no cities were under attack. Our teams in the capital Kyiv would beg to differ. She refused to elaborate if cities under attack would constitute an invasion. 

She went on to accuse the United States, and its followers, presumably including the UK, as having "fanned the flame, instead of putting out the fire" and insisted China’s actions in contrast have been responsible and above board. 

Vladimir Putin and Russia will expect China not to criticise its moves Credit: AP

When asked about the timing of the attack, coming just after the end of the Winter Olympics, she insisted  Russia is an independent country that can independently decide its own actions.

It had been rumoured President Xi had asked his friend President Putin to at least hold off until after the Beijing 2022 Games were over. 

Despite the growing friendship between Russia and China and a relationship which was described as having no bounds, she claimed that China could not be described as a directly concerned party in this matter. 

And there would be no need for China to provide Russia with any military assistance because Russia was powerful enough. 

My question regarding whether President Xi had plans to speak to President Putin went unanswered, but State Media in China confirmed on Thursday evening that Foreign Minister Wang Yi did talk to his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

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A read-out of their phone conversation detailed a discussion in which Wang Yi said that China understands Russia’s ‘’legitimate concerns on security issues’’ and that it shares the country’s desire to see and end to the ‘’Cold War mentality’’. He also stated that the Ukraine issue has its ‘’complex and special historical latitude and longitude.”

Wang Yi also advocated security to be established through dialogue and negotiation. China, he told Mr Lavrov ‘’always respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries.”

The Russian Foreign Minister said Russia had been forced to take the necessary measures to safeguard its own rights and interests. He accused the US and NATO of violating UN security council resolution 2202 on the New Minsk agreements and breaking their commitments on expanding eastward.

In China's refusal to condemn Russia’s actions or even accept it has invaded Ukraine, it has placed its own citizens in potential danger.

The staff at its embassy in Kyiv have not been ordered to leave the country, instead they were issued a warning to stay at home and away from their windows. If they had to embark on any long journeys (perhaps escaping an invasion?) then they were advised to affix their car with a Chinese flag.  

It is no huge surprise that China should not criticise Russia. Just three weeks ago, the world watched President Xi host President Putin on the opening day of the Winter Olympics and there was gushing commentary about the pair being the best of friends.

The accord they released following their meeting laid out in black and white their shared desire for a new world order. 

But the big difference between the two countries is that China is the global player. It is a manufacturing powerhouse that has woven its way into the world’s supply chains. Russia by comparison is a minor player in the global economy. 

Russia is thought to have been preparing for years to offset the sanctions that it is expecting to hit in the coming days, and part of that has been increasing trade with China.

If the foundations are already there, then support from the Chinese economically to offset those sanctions would not be an unexpected or hugely controversial way for Beijing to do its bit for Moscow.

China is walking a tightrope, not criticising its mate Russia, but not taking any steps that would completely alienate the US and the EU.

Accusing the US of leading Russia into military conflict is one thing, but to openly support President Putin, verbally or otherwise, would put paint China into a difficult, and defining position.