China refuses to call Russian attack on Ukraine an ‘invasion,’ deflects blame to U.S.
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson refused to categorize Russia’s attack as an “invasion” during a news conference on Thursday.
Russian President Vladimir Putin announced an attack on Ukraine on Thursday morning, and explosions were heard in Kyiv and other cities in Ukraine. Ukraine’s military claimed to be engaged in fighting within its borders, and Ukraine President Volodimyr Zelenskyy described the attack as an invasion to destroy the country.
Within hours, leaders from the United States, Germany, the United Kingdom condemned the Russian attack.
China’s assistant foreign minister, Hua Chunying, was asked by reporters several times whether she would call Russia’s attacks an invasion but she repeatedly avoided giving a yes or no answer.
In response to one reporter, Hua appeared to express frustration at the question and said, “The U.S. has been fueling the flame, fanning up the flame, how do they want to put out the fire?”
That’s according to an official translation of her Mandarin-language remarks.
Hua said Russia was an “independent major country” that could take its own actions. She referred repeatedly to Russia’s government statements on Ukraine, such as a claim from Moscow’s Defense Ministry that Russian armed forces would not strike Ukrainian cities.
“China is closely following the development of the situation. What you are seeing today is not what we have wished to see,” Hua said. “We hope all parties can go back to dialogue and negotiation.”
Later on Thursday, the ministry said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had a call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Wang said China always respects each country’s sovereignty, and that the Ukraine issue is complex, according to the official readout.
Wang called for the use of dialogue, but did not mention previous official lines from Beijing about the need for all parties to maintain restraint.
“China is clearly sympathetic to Russian perspectives,” said Tong Zhao, a senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, based in Beijing.
“China thinks that it’s the NATO expansion and other threats from the U.S. and NATO” that ultimately prompted Russia to defend “its legitimate interests,” he said. “In other words, I think China feels Russia feels it is forced to do what it is doing.”
“Because Russia is now receiving wide international condemnation and criticism I think China wants to avoid being seen as part of this axis,” Zhao said.
But “when it comes to public statements China has been very careful,” he said. “It’s hard for China to openly support this Russian behavior given this implications for China’s own security and China’s relationship with Taiwan.”
Beijing has repeatedly declared it intends to reunify with Taiwan. The island off the coast of mainland China is democratically self-governed but claimed by the People’s Republic of China.
As tensions brewed earlier in the week, China’s foreign minister Wang and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed Ukraine in a phone call Tuesday, according to official statements from both the U.S. and China.
The call followed the closing of the Beijing Winter Olympic Games on Sunday. Just ahead of the opening ceremony in early February, Putin met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing.
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