China continues to try to square an impossible circle with its public statements on Ukraine.
In a daily news conference, a foreign ministry spokesperson said that the territorial integrity of all nations should be upheld.
It also said that it understood Russia’s security concerns.
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Contradiction and hypocrisy
Clearly those two are in contradiction, given Russia’s security concerns have bulldozed through Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
But anyone who’s ever been to one of those briefings will know that China isn’t bothered by incoherence or hypocrisy in its public utterances.
What’s clear is that China is tacitly endorsing the Russian invasion, while paying lip service to old-fashioned ideas that countries shouldn’t attack other states unprovoked.
The only party it has blamed so far is NATO, for supposedly antagonising Russia by pushing up to its borders, and the US, for sanctioning Russia.
China will help with those sanctions. As the conflict was launched, it was quick to approve the import of wheat from Russia for the first time.
And when Vladimir Putin visited Xi Jinping in Beijing, one of his talking points was sanctions relief.
But there are signs that China has its doubts.
The most obvious is the incoherence of those statements: It is not backing this invasion, otherwise it would say so. And you get the sense it would rather it wasn’t happening.
The front page of the People’s Daily, China’s most important state-run newspaper, made no mention of the invasion – it led with a story about Xi Jinping writing a letter to a snowboarder. They will tolerate the invasion but do little beyond that.
Russia – a larger version of North Korea?
And in that sense, Russia has become a larger, more powerful version of North Korea for China.
China is frequently annoyed by Kim Jong-un’s regime: It tests nuclear weapons close to the Chinese border, sometimes impounds Chinese fishing boats and tries to ransom them, and is generally a destabilising player in China’s own backyard.
But still China stands by North Korea, celebrating an “invincible friendship”.
It does so because North Korea keeps the democratic South Korea – and the American troops stationed there – at arm’s length.
It distracts US attention, as well as giving Beijing leverage with Washington. Chinese help with Pyongyang comes at the cost of American concessions.
Russia, well on its way to becoming a Chinese client state, can fulfil the same role.
Asia matters more than Europe
So the negative perceptions that China will endure for supporting an imperialist adventure in Ukraine are worth bearing, because the greater prize for China is in Asia, not Europe.
Russia is also an Asian power and a naval power. When it comes to Taiwan, a bloc of China, North Korea and Russia has heft.
China likes to criticise a “Cold War mentality” and the formation of blocs.
Its cynical stance in Ukraine again shows how comfortable they are with public hypocrisy.