Analysis: China’s balancing act on Ukraine offers Washington a subtle ‘victory’

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WASHINGTON/UNITED NATIONS, April 7 (Reuters) – China’s abstentions in UN votes to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine are a “victory”, the US envoy to the United Nations has said, stressing how Beijing’s balance between its partner Russia and the West might be the best outcome for Washington.

Beijing has refused to call Russia’s actions in Ukraine an invasion and has repeatedly criticized what it calls illegal Western sanctions to punish Moscow.

But US pressure on China, including the specter of secondary sanctions if it provided material support for Russia’s war, appears to be helping to keep Beijing on the fence about the conflict.

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China abstained in two non-binding UN General Assembly votes last month that criticized Russia for the ongoing war and its humanitarian costs.

“It’s a victory when China abstains. We would like them to vote yes, but an abstention is better than them voting no,” UN ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield told Reuters. .

“I’m not sure they expected Russia to go this far. They continue to publicly support Russia, but I feel unease,” she said.

Chinese Ambassador to the UN Zhang Jun, responding to Thomas-Greenfield’s remarks, said: “The whole world is not comfortable. Do you think anyone should be comfortable with this? crisis ?”

China and Russia declared a “limitless” strategic partnership weeks before the Feb. 24 invasion and have forged closer energy and security ties in recent years to fend off the United States and the West.

In a tilt to Moscow, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has discussed the conflict in Ukraine in calls with leaders of many major countries, but has yet to offer such diplomatic validation to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

Although Beijing has provided humanitarian aid to Ukraine — about $2.37 million worth of items such as blankets and formula — those contributions are surpassed by much smaller donors.

Analysts say they have yet to see any major indication that China is violating tough Western sanctions on Russia, but there are strong signs that China is hedging its bets, particularly on the economic front.

Chinese state oil refiners are avoiding new oil contracts with Russia despite steep discounts, sources told Reuters. Read more

State-owned Sinopec, Asia’s largest oil refiner, has also suspended talks for a major petrochemical investment and gas marketing venture in Russia. Read more

Sanctions on Russia should give China a “good understanding” of the consequences it could face if it provided material support to Moscow, US Assistant Secretary of State Wendy Sherman warned on Wednesday. Read more

China seems unlikely to back down from its tacit diplomatic support for Russia – even in light of graphic images showing widespread civilian killings in the Ukrainian town of Bucha, north of the capital kyiv. Moscow rejects Western accusations of war crimes.

Zhang said China does not want to be dragged into the crisis.

“The goal is really for the parties involved to find a solution as quickly as possible, instead of trying to look at an indirect party and drag those indirect parties into this crisis,” Zhang told Reuters.

“PLAY ON BOTH SIDES”

China, itself accused by Washington of committing genocide against its Uyghur population, voted no on Thursday to a resolution that suspended Russia from the UN Human Rights Council. Read more

Ahead of the vote, Zhang called it a “rushed move” that forced countries to choose sides.

US officials appear to expect that China’s support for Russia will not violate major red lines set by the United States and the European Union, which together account for a quarter of China’s global trade, versus only 2.4% for Russia, according to the EU. . Read more

“We will probably continue to see some Chinese support for the Russian economy, but a dance that Beijing is trying to do to maintain its economic ties with the European Union in particular, but also with the United States,” Mira Rapp-Hooper , director for the Indo-Pacific at the White House National Security Council, said in March. Read more

US President Joe Biden has relied heavily on allies to help make the case – as he did in a call with Xi last month – that there would be consequences to backing Russia.

Following a virtual summit between European and Chinese leaders last week, China’s foreign ministry said it was not deliberately circumventing sanctions. Read more

He also denied being solicited or providing military support to Russia.

Scott Kennedy, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said in a recent online forum that there was no evidence that Chinese banks were supporting sanctioned Russian financial institutions and that some Chinese companies were selling less at Russia, from mobile phones to cars. rooms.

Experts say the US ability to monitor and track small-scale Chinese sanctions violations is limited, as shipments could cross land borders where US monitoring does not take place. They say the goal should be to prevent Chinese companies from having large sanctioned trade deals with Russia.

“The realists are going to win this one and figure out the Chinese are going to play both sides in the middle and they’ll get what few wins they can get,” said Donald Pearce, a former export control attaché at the United States Embassy in Moscow working with Torres Trade Advisory.

“If you have at least tacitly admitted that China respects the idea that the United States might start imposing secondary sanctions, that may be enough,” Pearce said.

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Reporting by Michael Martina in Washington and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; Editing by Mary Milliken and Michael Perry

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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