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(Audio & Transcript) The battle for Ukraine could test the limits of closer ties between China and Russia

Dr. Evan A. Feigenbaum
 

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Meanwhile, countries around the world continue to condemn Russia for its war in Ukraine, issuing sanctions. China, though, is watching carefully. NPR’s Beijing correspondent, Emily Feng, reports.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: In China, the discussion on Russia and Ukraine is becoming incredibly polarized – in favor of Russia. Lisa, a Ukrainian student and model, once lived in China and has 400,000 followers on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok. She’s now using her account to counter false information that Ukraine’s president has fled the country or that ethnic Russians face genocide in Ukraine – disinformation that has been shared by China’s largest state outlets on social media this month.

LISA: And, like, every day, I can receive thousands of messages where people say, I wish you dead. Go in Ukraine, and death with Ukraine together.

FENG: These threats are why Lisa asked we not use her last name.

Officially, China is neutral on Russia’s invasion. But just weeks before, China’s leader, Xi Jinping, personally welcomed Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China for the Winter Olympics. And there, the two men released a joint statement saying their partnership had, quote, “no limits.” Historian Joseph Torigian points out this close relationship is unprecedented. In the late 1960s, China even feared the Soviets would hit them with nuclear missiles. The father of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, himself a senior Communist official, was preoccupied with Russian threats.

JOSEPH TORIGIAN: And, in fact, on a trip to the United States in 1980, people who saw him recalled that he was very interested in the United States’ ability to defend itself from a Soviet nuclear attack and said that only by cooperating – Washington and Beijing – could they project enough strength that the Soviet Union wouldn’t start a war.

FENG: But by the 1990s, the Soviet Union had dissolved – a moment that shaped both Xi and Putin’s worldviews. Now the two leaders visit frequently. And Wang Huiyao, the director of a Beijing think tank, the Center for China and Globalization, says China and Russia find themselves united by a common rival, the United States.

WANG HUIYAO: There are some elements there that U.S. has always been, you know, bashing China. And I think that, you know, really basically pushed China and the Russians together to some extent.

FENG: It’s unclear how much Xi knew about Putin’s plans to attack Ukraine when they met last month. Either way, Russia’s become more of a liability than Beijing likely planned. Here’s Evan Feigenbaum, a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, on China’s current conundrum.

EVAN FEIGENBAUM: They will not be able to escape the conclusion that at minimum, they are silent, and they may even be an enabler.

FENG: And so in the days since the invasion, China has been scrambling to smooth over tough questions about why it hasn’t condemned the Russian invasion, given territorial integrity is normally a cornerstone of Chinese foreign policy.

FEIGENBAUM: As the Chinese try to reconcile diverse interests that simply cannot be reconciled, they are tacking back and forth, struggling to have all those things and having to jettison one or another of those on any given day of the week.

FENG: Around China, the geopolitical landscape has already changed and not in China’s favor. Opposition to Russia has quickly mobilized the democracies of the European Union, the United States and Japan into working together. The U.S. has been working for years to unify such a bloc to contain China. In a matter of only days, a Russian invasion has done that work for them. Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.

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