China uses 'W' word over Russia's Ukraine attack but don’t be fooled about where its allegiances lie

We are unlikely to ever know if President Xi knew of President Putin's plans to invade Ukraine in advance. Credit: AP

Don’t be fooled, it may have finally used the 'W' word but China remains aligned with Russia.

In recent days, the Chinese government has ramped up its calls for a peaceful resolution in Ukraine and on Tuesday, in a phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart, China’s foreign minister expressed the country’s sorrow at the escalating conflict. But just because Wang Yi has finally described the situation accurately and used the word "warfare", it does not mean that there’s been any fundamental shift in China’s position towards Russia.

There are two things which appear to have wrong footed Beijing. The scale of Vladimir Putin’s invasion and threats to use nuclear weapons, and the collective global response. We may never know if President Xi Jinping was told in advance of Putin’s plans, if he shook hands with his friend Vladimir in Beijing on February 4, knowing that in three weeks’ time, after China had enjoyed its splendid Winter Olympics, that the Russian president would launch a full-scale offensive to decapitate the Ukrainian government. The two authoritarian leaders share not just an ideological vision for a new global order, their values align on human rights, freedom of speech and democracy. They are at the helm of authoritarian states in which there are widescale abuses and the suppression of all three. Their partnership is based on opposition to US and European world dominance.

In the weeks leading up to the invasion, China and Russia watched with delight as the West appeared to display a fractured response. There was mockery in Chinese State Media of the United States when February the 16, the day America had warned there would be an invasion, came and went. But that invasion did come and in the seven days since, there has been a swift and unified response from the West. The broad and unwavering condemnation, the collective action to cripple the Russia’s finances and offer what military support they can to Ukraine, has all come as an unwelcome surprise.

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It’s also being partly driven by social commentary; the censors cannot keep Chinese people from terrible pictures emerging and from seeing the appeals for help from their fellow citizens in Ukraine. There have been calls for peace, and sympathy expressed towards the people of Ukraine. But tellingly, one of the most discussed topics on Weibo China’s Twitter-like platform, was sanctions on Russia. It has drawn criticism as a prime example of the Wests ‘’double standards’’ and ‘’hegemony’’. Comments like ‘’shame on you America’’ have been widely used. One person posted ‘’if Russia fails, China will be the next one bullied by the US and West”. It is impossible to gauge the majority opinion in a country of 1.4 billion people but it seems there is generally no doubt that Beijing and Moscow still stand “back-to-back”. China doesn’t want to be viewed as complicit in this war, but it has no problem showing it is sympathetic to Putin’s cause.