Why China’s Ukraine balancing act might be tilting in Putin’s favor

HONG KONG — A flurry of European diplomatic activity over Russia’s war in Ukraine has offered a stark contrast this week: While President Joe Biden made a surprise visit to Kyiv, China’s top diplomat is in Moscow.

The split screen reflects renewed fears that Western backing for Ukraine will be matched by China doubling down on its bet on the Kremlin. Beijing has been engaged in a delicate balancing act, experts told NBC News, but may find that increasingly strained as the conflict moves into its second year.

Washington has accused Beijing of providing Russia nonlethal military assistance against Ukraine, and even considering providing lethal aid. China denies the allegations, saying the U.S. has escalated the situation by sending weapons to Kyiv.

China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, was in Moscow on Wednesday in what could be a precursor to a visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

China-Russia relations are “rock solid and will withstand any test in a changing international situation,” Wang told Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of Russia’s National Security Council, on Tuesday in remarks aired on Russian state television. Patrushev called for greater cooperation with China to resist pressure from the West.

Beijing insists it is committed to promoting peace talks to end the war in Ukraine, and will release a policy paper in the coming days explaining its views on a potential diplomatic settlement.

China is “deeply worried” the Ukraine conflict could spiral out of control, Foreign Minister Qin Gang said on Tuesday. “We urge certain countries to immediately stop fueling the fire,” he said at a security conference in Beijing, in an apparent reference to the United States.

China and Russia, both major powers that share a 2,500-mile border, view themselves as counterweights to American global dominance. Their relationship has been under greater scrutiny since last February, when Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin released a lengthy joint statement declaring a “no limits” partnership just weeks before Moscow invaded Ukraine.

The two leaders, who have met more than three dozen times in the past decade, have “a very good personal relationship [and] call each other old friends,” said Zheng Wang, director of the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at Seton Hall University in New Jersey.

Since the war began a year ago, China has refrained from condemning Russia’s aggression while urging peace talks, expressing concern about the humanitarian situation and being careful to avoid violating international sanctions. 

China has been “trying to achieve two things at once,” said Joseph Torigian, an expert on China and Russia at American University in Washington.

“On the one hand, it wants to be supportive of Russia because, over the long term, they see Russia as a key partner in an increasingly competitive relationship with especially the United States,” he said. “But, at the same time, they’re concerned about economic and reputational cost, especially in the European Union.”

While trade with Beijing may help the Kremlin’s war machine, there has so far been little evidence of China “breaking sanctions and providing lethal material or weapons to Russia,” Torigian said. But as Russia struggles on the battlefield, he added, China “may come under increasing pressure from the Russian Federation for assistance that might put them in an increasingly difficult spot.”

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