China and the World

An uncomfortable position

What does the European media think of China’s Ukraine stance?


Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi

One of the most closely watched press conferences this week was not in Moscow or Kyiv but in Beijing on Monday when Foreign Minister Wang Yi outlined China’s response to the crisis in Ukraine and his wider views on international relations.

Countries across the world knew that they needed to listen to him because China’s actions could potentially change the outcome of an armed conflict that almost no-one wants. Would he express China’s willingness to act as a mediator and rein in Beijing’s closest ally?

European newspapers covered the speech in depth. All the German newspapers flagged how Wang saved all his critical words for the US, accusing it of causing the war through NATO’s eastward expansion and trying to establish a new version of the organisation in the Indo-Pacific. “Anyone who thought that China would distance itself from Moscow in view of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, was taught otherwise on Monday,” Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung commented.

Handelsblatt noted how much scepticism there had been when the EU Foreign Policy Chief, Josep Borrell suggested that China could play a mediating role between Russia and Ukraine the previous weekend. Wang’s words have only “fuelled that scepticism” it said.

In a separate article, Janka Oertel, head of the Asia Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations told Handelsblatt that, “China will continue as far as possible to remain neutral in public statements… In secret, however, China will definitely help, for example, to circumvent the financial sanctions. Now China is just waiting.”

Spiegel’s Beijing correspondent Georg Fahrion said that “China has to keep a distance at least to the outside world, but of course it now has Russia in its pocket; Russia no longer has a chance to deny China anything.”

Welt picks up a similar point. Like many German newspapers, it points out how Beijing is not only refusing to use the word invasion to describe what’s happening in Ukraine, but is also determined to paint the US as the bad guy rather than the “true aggressor”, Russia. Welt’s columnist Jens Munchrath said that Beijing has become entangled in major contradictions in its Russia policy. “How much longer can it maintain this self-deceptive stance?” he asked.

China needs to take a stand, he added, before warning of the voices in Washington calling for sanctions against Beijing because of its support for Moscow. “Anyone who supports a country that is openly threatening to use nuclear weapons in Europe should ask themselves whether they still want, or are allowed to be an economic partner,” Munchrath concluded.

In neighbouring France, Le Monde reflected a widespread view that Ukraine is a wake-up call for the West. “The war in Ukraine underlines the urgency of an awakening of democracies,” it stated. “Behind the Russian invasion, there’s a struggle between two models of society. Autocratic regimes are gaining ground.” Le Figaro similarly noted how China opted to blame the US, rather than take sides between Russia and the Ukraine.

Spanish newspapers run with the same theme. After underscoring China’s avoidance of the word invasion, El Pais columnist Macarena Vidal Liy said that Beijing’s “slanted neutrality”, meant using cautious language but clearly leaning towards Moscow.

Italy’s La Repubblica similarly concurred that Wang’s words have “left many dissatisfied” but suggested there are “perhaps a few glimmers” of hope given that he publicly mentioned mediation for the first time.

On balance, however, the European media reaction to the messaging coming out of China remains tinged with cynicism over Beijing’s motives and approach as the human carnage in Ukraine escalates.

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