COLUMN-Mixed messages as China faces tough Ukraine choices
On March 21, Chinese Ambassador to Moscow Zhang Hanhui told a dozen Chinese business chiefs to waste no time and "fill the void" in Russian markets left by Western sanctions. But in Beijing, the Foreign Ministry this week summoned officials from China's three largest energy companies and instructed them to review their business ties with Russian partners, Reuters quoted two sources with knowledge of the meeting as saying.
As Russian troops surrounded the eastern Ukrainian city of Mariupol, the Moscow correspondent for Hong Kong-based and partly Chinese state-owned Phoenix TV visited frontline positions with fighters from the Kremlin-backed Donetsk People’s Republic and broadcast their talking points back to China. Yu Yuguang’s reports – which included claims that Ukrainian "Nazis", not Russian-backed forces, were responsible for civilian casualties – were among the most partisan reporting on the conflict by Chinese media.
But they were the exception, not the rule – while Chinese state-owned media has relentlessly blamed the United States for the conflict, it has otherwise primarily looked to paint Beijing as a more neutral arbiter. It is a divide that appears to reflect a wider, complex reality as different elements within the Chinese state and economy are pulled in different directions.
Beijing’s relationship with Moscow has grown ever closer during the pandemic, but China is also the largest investor in Ukraine and its companies and economy have also been hit globally by the consequences of the invasion just as they face a new wave of COVID-19. This week, the Institute of International Finance reported global investors pulled out of Chinese stocks and bonds on an "unprecedented" scale at the start of the war, suggesting foreign investors were also looking at China in a new light. Official data showed foreign investors reduced their holdings of Chinese government bonds by the most on record in February, while stocks also fell sharply before recovering in March.
This week, Chinese state-run oil refiner Sinopec suspended talks on a major petrochemical investment and gas marketing venture in Russia, sources told Reuters, one of several major Chinese firms reported to have held back or cut investments in operations there following Western sanctions. Messaging from Chinese authorities appears mixed. On March 21, Chinese Ambassador to Moscow Zhang Hanhui told a dozen Chinese business chiefs to waste no time and "fill the void" in Russian markets left by Western sanctions.
But in Beijing, the Foreign Ministry this week summoned officials from China's three largest energy companies and instructed them to review their business ties with Russian partners, Reuters quoted two sources with knowledge of the meeting as saying. One source said the ministry urged them to avoid rash moves buying Russian assets. BLAMING AMERICA
Foreign investors have also been fleeing Taiwan in the aftermath of the Ukraine invasion – Bank of America analysts estimate total outflows in the first month at $15.6 billion, more than outflows in the whole of last year. The war has also intensified discussion on the democratically ruled island, which China claims as its own, on extending compulsory military service to a full year, a move now backed by 75 percent of the population in a poll this month.
Chinese military rhetoric on Taiwan, however, has been notably quiet since Russia's Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine. Chinese media has largely rejected comparisons between the two conflicts, while some Chinese social media users expressed concern that Russia’s recognition of the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk might be used to justify similar independence moves from Taiwan. Beijing has repeatedly voiced its opposition to sanctions against Russia and refused to call President Vladimir Putin’s move an “invasion”. Last week, U.S. President Joe Biden said he had made it clear to Chinese counterpart Xi Xinping that China could regret siding with Russia's invasion of Ukraine, saying he believed Xi knew that China's future remained tied to the West.
Washington has also repeatedly lobbied China against supplying Russia with new weapons. If anything, that appears to have produced a hardening of China’s public-facing messaging. This week, the Chinese Communist Party-owned People’s Daily – which had previously largely limited its coverage to repeating often bland official statements – carried several editorials blaming U.S. "hegemony" for the Ukraine conflict. The Chinese military-owned PLA Daily ran a number of articles with a similar theme.
INFORMATION BATTLE Chinese state media has also aggressively amplified claims from Russian media linking both the invasion and in some cases the COVID pandemic to U.S.-funded biological research labs in Eastern Europe, a narrative first pushed in the early days of the pandemic that has now become a frequent theme on both Russian and Chinese state outlets.
Other Chinese commentary, however, remains more nuanced. China’s state-run Global Times – normally unambiguously nationalist – noted with concern this week that Russia’s confrontation with the U.S. and Ukraine had now broadened into a larger confrontation with the West. Writing in the South China Morning Post, former diplomat Shi Jiangtao said it appeared "plausible" that Putin had failed to brief Xi on the full scale of the invasion when he met him shortly beforehand at the Beijing Winter Olympics.
Both Moscow and Kyiv have kept up a regular dialogue with Beijing throughout the conflict, while also waging a battle for hearts and minds on China’s highly regulated Weibo and other social media platforms. Russian diplomats and officials have pushed pro-Kremlin lines, while Chinese-speaking Ukrainians have translated articles and engaged directly with Chinese social media users to push their own very different story of the war. Last week, German retailer MediaMarkt removed drones made by Chinese manufacturer DJI from its shelves following a social media campaign from pro-Ukrainian accounts saying its products were being used by the Russian military in Ukraine.
DJI denied that this was the case, but Ukrainian users have reportedly been abandoning its drones over worries they could be tracked by Russian forces. Chinese tech firms had been making inroads into Ukraine before the invasion, but now such scepticism is rampant there and has escalated further in other Western nations. Like Russia now and the United States after the invasion of Iraq, China is rediscovering the truth that wars of choice can be expensive and unpredictable, not just for the countries that start them but also those around them. What it does with that revelation may help shape the rest of the century.
*** Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, globalisation, conflict and other issues. He is the founder and executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century; PS21, a non-national, non-partisan, non-ideological think tank. Paralysed by a war-zone car crash in 2006, he also blogs about his disability and other topics. He was previously a reporter for Reuters and continues to be paid by Thomson Reuters. Since 2016, he has been a member of the British Army Reserve and the UK Labour Party.
(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)