Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin declared a “no limits” friendship between China and Russia before the Olympics began. Two months and a war later, Beijing’s envoy to the U.S. has added an important caveat.
“China and Russia’s cooperation has no forbidden areas, but it has a bottom line,” Ambassador Qin Gang told state-backed broadcaster Phoenix TV on Wednesday. “That line is the tenets and principles of the United Nations Charter, the recognized basic norms of international law and international relations.”
“This is the guideline we follow in bilateral relations between China and any other country,” Qin added, responding to a question about Beijing’s commitment to Moscow following its Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine.
The remarks are the first from a Chinese official clarifying a lengthy joint statement released by the two countries last month that heightened concerns among U.S. allies about a rejuvenated China-Russia bloc. Since the invasion, China has sought to portray itself as neutral: Issuing statements supporting Ukraine’s sovereignty and expressing concern about civilian casualties, while supporting Putin at the United Nations and blaming the U.S. for provoking the war by expanding the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Xi has faced more pressure to distance himself with Putin, with President Joe Biden in a Friday call cautioning the Chinese leader against providing military or sanctions assistance to Moscow. Jake Sullivan, the U.S. national security advisor, said Wednesday administration officials “have not seen the Chinese government move forward on the supply of weapons, but it’s something we’re watching every day.”
Some prominent Chinese scholars have suggested Beijing should calibrate its relationship with Moscow. In a now-censored commentary, Hu Wei, a vice-chairman for the State Council-affiliated Public Policy Research Center, advocated in early March for a clear break from Russia “as soon as possible,” in a post republished by the Carter Center’s U.S.-China Perception Monitor’s website, which was then blocked in China.
Xiao Bin, a research fellow at the state-backed Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, last week noted that China and Russia’s strategic partnership “emerged from a state of no war,” saying that the subsequent invasion had changed those dynamics. “Therefore, China-Russia relations certainly have upper limits, which are the interests of the Chinese people,” he wrote on the website of the China-United States Exchange Foundation. That post is still available on China’s internet.
“In other words, relations should be constrained to areas that don’t harm those interests,” Xiao added.
Still, other prominent commentators have advocated for close China-Russia relations. Hu Xijin, former editor-in-chef of the Communist Party backed Global Times newspaper, called Russia the “most important partner” for China in a recent Weibo post.
“If the U.S. successfully drives a wedge between China and Russia, Russia will immediately face a strategic checkmate,” he wrote. “In a future conflict between China and the U.S., China will also face a losing game.”