Wang flew from Munich to Moscow today to round out a broader trip to Paris, Rome, and Budapest. Wang’s trip to Europe was partly aimed at paving the way for French President Emmanuel Macron and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni to visit Beijing this spring.
“China finds itself uncomfortably on the defensive — U.S. and European leaders see China siding with Russian aggression,” Elizabeth Wishnick, senior researcher for CNA and Montclair State University, and scholar for the Weatherhead East Asian Institute at Columbia University, told The China Project today.
“Initially, Chinese officials expressed regret over its balloon flying over U.S. territory. But after the U.S. shot down the balloon, offense became the best defense and PRC officials returned to their usual criticism of U.S. policies, including military support for Ukraine,” Wishnick added.
Wang also announced that Chinese leader Xí Jìnpíng 习近平 would present a “peace proposal” on the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
“I would expect that whatever may come from the Chinese side will be along the line of the rhetoric we had so far, urging both sides to engage in negotiations, not blaming Russia for the invasion — because this is something we have not seen yet. We have seen expressions of Ukrainian sovereignty, but China has not explicitly stated that Russia should not have violated the Ukrainian border,” Marina Rudyak, interim professor for Chinese Society and Economy at University of Göttingen, told The China Project today.
China wooes Europe, but Beijing isn’t sending the right message
Wang’s appearance at the Munich conference built on China’s attempts to woo European countries amid growing tensions with the U.S. He has spent the last week trying to shore up ties ahead of the one-year anniversary of the Ukraine war, his first trip to Europe since he took up China’s top foreign ministry position late last year.
“Some forces may not want to see peace talks materialize,” Wang said in a veiled criticism aimed at the U.S. “They don’t care about the life and death of the Ukrainians, nor the harm to Europe. They may have strategic goals larger than Ukraine itself.”
“China’s rhetoric towards the European Union (EU) is quite consistent, in the sense that China is talking about the European Union needs and its independent foreign policy, also, of course, implying that the EU allies itself with the United States,” Rudyak told The China Project. “The impression that not only I have, but other analysts in Europe have, is that the Chinese leadership is still not getting the sentiments about the war, which is kind of surprising because China does have good experts on Europe.”
“In the last few months, there have been Chinese delegations traveling to Europe. So the rhetoric raises the question whether the leadership in Beijing doesn’t get it, or whether they don’t care. And this is part of a united foreign strategy aligning with Russia against the United States,” Rudyak added.
China has also remained largely consistent on its stance towards Russia. Beijing’s refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and reluctance in imposing Western-led sanctions on Moscow has tainted its relationship with European allies, many of whom are throwing in more financial and military support for Ukraine.
“As long as the war continues, I don’t think the European position on China will change, and this is something it seems Beijing has underestimated, that the EU is ready to take economic sacrifices in this war.” Rudyak told The China Project. “This is something that, as far as we can see, China did not expect.”
China’s “neutral” position on the war has exacerbated fraying ties with European nations, which have also come under strain in recent years over reports of Beijing’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang, and other issues. The EU’s unified stance on the war in Ukraine has also come despite deep divisions within its member states, given their varying degrees of economic dependency with China.
China wants a stable regime in Russia
Meanwhile, Wang arrived in Moscow today, as China continues to deepen economic ties with an isolated Russia.
Hours earlier, Foreign Minister Qín Gāng 秦刚 warned Western countries against “adding fuel to the fire” in Ukraine and repeated calls for peace talks. He also urged “relevant countries” to stop blaming China for the war and to “stop hyping up ‘today Ukraine, tomorrow Taiwan’” — a reference to the parallel concerns that Beijing would invade the self-ruled island.
“China’s rhetoric on Russia has been quite consistent in talking about friendship with Russia and not explicitly condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — rather, blaming [the conflict on] the U.S. and NATO expansion,” Rudyak told The China Project. But China has also “more or less respected Western sanctions.”
Just 20 days before Russian President Vladmir Putin invaded Ukraine last year, he signed a “no limits” strategic partnership with Xi. Since then, Beijing has been stuck in an uncomfortable position between balancing its political allegiances with Moscow with its economic ties to the West. In December, Xi and Putin pledged for greater cooperation in their annual end-of-the-year video call, where Putin hailed their deepening bilateral ties as the “greatest in all history.”
“On the one hand, we see China’s deepening economic ties with Russia in things like energy exports. And it’s pretty clear that China has no interest in the collapse of the regime in Moscow, which makes sense, because if we look at the landscape in Moscow, those who may come after Putin are much less predictable,” Rudyak told The China Project. “So one alternative is if Putin stops being president for whatever reason, and the people who are next in line come to power. The other alternative would be basically for Russia to break apart. And both are obviously not in Beijing’s interest. So it looks like Beijing will try to do whatever it can to stabilize the regime just to prevent unrest at its borders.”
While Wang was traveling to Moscow, U.S. President Joe Biden made a surprise visit to Kyiv, Ukraine yesterday, to reaffirm the U.S.’s “unwavering and unflagging commitment to Ukraine’s democracy, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.”
U.S.-China tensions over Ukraine and the balloon
In his remarks at the Munich conference, Wang also hit back at the U.S. for its response to the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon, dashing hopes that his meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken might stabilize ties between the two world superpowers.
The U.S.’s response to the suspected surveillance balloon was “absurd and hysterical,” Wang said in a sidelines meeting with Blinken on Saturday. It was the first face-to-face exchange between senior U.S. and Chinese officials since “Balloon-gate,” which caused Blinken to postpone a planned visit to Beijing in early February.
“Over the past two years, the U.S.-China relationship has been on a downward trajectory, with occasional plateaus around calls or meetings between President Biden and President Xi. Recent events fit within that pattern,” Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told The China Project. “Both leaders have instructed their teams to establish reliable channels of communication to manage competition and limit risk of conflict. Biden and Xi may need to intervene again to push such efforts forward.”
Blinken later warned about “the implications and consequences if China provides material support to Russia or assistance with systemic sanctions evasion” after his meeting with Wang. The Chinese Foreign Ministry denied the allegations today, saying that the U.S. was “falsely claiming that China is offering weapons” to Russia.
“The Chinese government claims to be impartial and preparing a peace initiative, which would be odd timing for shifting to provide weapons to Russia,” Wishnick told The China Project. “There may be those in China who fear a Russian defeat (which would be bad for China, its strategic partner), and Secretary Blinken’s comments were probably a warning to them. I see China continue to provide as much dual-use tech as it can get away with without facing sanctions or assisting ‘non-state actors’ like the Wagner Group.”