China's failure to condemn Russia's invasion of Ukraine is undermining its own long-standing defense of sovereignty and territorial integrity on the world stage, according to U.S. officials and experts.
“It’s not in China’s interest to endorse a devastating conflict in Europe and defy the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity it claims to hold dear,” a senior U.S. administration official told reporters Thursday.
“We’re obviously clear-eyed about how China operates," the official said, "but the fact is that Russia’s aggressive actions here carry risks for China along with everyone else.”
The U.S. State Department also dismissed a new Russian offer — endorsed by China — to negotiate a solution to the crisis with Ukraine. Diplomacy cannot take place "at the barrel of a gun,” a spokesperson said.
Russian President Vladimir Putin told Chinese President Xi Jinping in a Friday phone call that Moscow was ready to send a delegation to Minsk for negotiations with representatives of Ukraine.
In Beijing, a Chinese statement said, “China supports Russia in resolving the issue through negotiation with Ukraine.”
'Not real diplomacy'
But State Department spokesperson Ned Price pointed out that the offer came on the second day of a massive invasion, with Russian troops and tanks closing in on the Ukrainian capital.
“This is not real diplomacy. Those are not the conditions for real diplomacy,” Price said at a regular briefing. “Moscow's rockets, mortars, artillery target the Ukrainian people.”
Analysts, including Seth Jones, director of the International Security Program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, are skeptical that any China-brokered diplomacy can halt Putin's military offensive in Ukraine.
“I don't actually think China has the power to back Putin off,” Jones told VOA.
"Does the Biden administration realistically expect diplomacy, including bringing Beijing into discussions or additional sanctions, is going to deter, further deter or even coerce Moscow in Ukraine? The answer is no,” he said.
Some observers said China’s support for Russia in the Ukraine crisis could muddy its historic insistence that Taiwan is part of China and its fierce rejection of any suggestion it could become independent from the mainland.
That argument is hard to reconcile with what is happening in Ukraine, where Putin set the stage for his invasion by decreeing that the eastern Ukraine regions of Luhansk and Donetsk are independent states.
Abstention at UNSC
In apparent recognition of its intellectual dilemma, China abstained Friday from a vote at the U.N. Security Council condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, rather than join Moscow in a veto.
Wang Wenbin, the spokesperson for China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, was asked Friday whether his government would recognize the Donetsk and Lugansk people’s republics.
“We hope relevant parties, in accordance with the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter, are committed to resolving differences through negotiation, addressing the legitimate concerns of all parties and avoiding further escalation of the situation,” Wang said without directly answering the question.
Wang also refrained from calling Russia’s military actions in Ukraine “an invasion,” saying China “understands Russia’s legitimate concerns on security issues.”
The Rand Corporation’s senior defense analyst, Derek Grossman, said China was not looking at Putin’s declaration that Luhansk and Donetsk are independent as some kind of precedent for Taiwan, a self-ruled democracy.
“Beijing is likely to simply ignore inconvenient precedents and world events in order to maintain maximum flexibility in dealing with Taiwan,” Grossman told VOA. “Beijing almost certainly wouldn't acknowledge” its contradictory message to Taiwan.
China is “actually in a somewhat awkward position,” said professor Yeh-chung Lu, who chairs the Department of Diplomacy at Taiwan's National Cheng-chi University. “Beijing should reconsider and limit its support of Moscow, if it is serious in seeking improved ties with Washington and the West,” Lu told VOA.
This week marks the 50th anniversary of former U.S. President Richard Nixon’s visit to China, a move seen as driving a wedge between the two most significant communist powers at that time, Russia and China. Nixon’s visit also opened the door for the United States to switch its diplomatic recognition from the Republic of China (Taiwan) to the People’s Republic of China.
The State Department has no plans to issue a statement to commemorate that anniversary, at least for now.
The State Department's Price was asked Wednesday if President Joe Biden’s administration was “embarrassed by it [the Nixon visit] now and think that it should never have happened.”
"Certainly not,” said Price. “I’m not sure that I would equate not putting out a formal statement with ignoring it,” he added.
Some experts said the Biden administration was downplaying the significance of Nixon’s visit five decades ago because of the Ukraine crisis, the growing partnership between China and Russia, and its own strained U.S.-China relations.
It certainly sends “the message to Beijing that Washington sees no need to highlight the cooperative history of U.S.-China relations,” said Grossman, adding that “extreme competition” is the main feature of current bilateral relationship.
“We're in a very different place today,” CSIS’s Jones told VOA. “The more you highlight that [Nixon’s visit to China], the more it potentially shows diplomatic failures today.”