A MONTH AFTER Vladimir Putin plunged Europe into war, China is ready to explain why it sees no urgent need to stop Russia—its closest strategic partner—from killing Ukrainians. After fine-tuning arguments and propaganda lines for weeks, China’s Communist Party bosses and their envoys now have talking points for every audience.
The most common argument is built on deflection and anti-Americanism. This is used for Chinese domestic consumption and in public contacts with Western governments. As Chinese officials tell it, Russia is defending itself against American aggression and a long campaign of encirclement by NATO. Chinese officials think it is unfair of Western leaders to ask their government to intervene, because only American concessions to Mr Putin can bring lasting peace. Moreover, if the war is going slowly, that is because American interests profit from drawn-out agonies, Chinese diplomats charge. Spelling out the accusation, a deputy foreign minister, Le Yucheng, told a gathering at Tsinghua University that “arms dealers, bankers and oil tycoons” from a certain big country (ie, America) are making “highly immoral” fortunes out of the war, while Ukraine suffers. This hard line comes from the top. China’s supreme leader, Xi Jinping, has given instructions that Russia is to be defended and America held responsible for Ukraine’s woes, leaving underlings to “backfill a foreign policy” around that decision, a foreign diplomat based in Beijing explains. To dramatise America’s obligations, Mr Xi reached for a Song-dynasty saying during a two-hour video call with President Joe Biden on March 18th, declaring: “He who tied the bell to the tiger must take it off.”
Mr Xi’s scolding, literary tone is striking because, according to American briefings given to foreign ambassadors in Beijing, Mr Biden used the call to convey his concerns that Russia may be contemplating attacks with chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine. His warnings were not a surprise to the Chinese. A few days earlier Mr Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, shared American intelligence about Russia’s possible intentions with China’s foreign-policy chief, Yang Jiechi, during a seven-hour meeting in Rome. Mr Sullivan told Mr Yang that Chinese support for Russian aggression would have a lingering impact on bilateral ties and on Mr Xi’s legacy. Mr Yang, it is related, responded with anger and complaints about America’s support for Taiwan, the democratic island that China claims as its own. Other officials have since copied that same rhetorical pivot to Asia. Mr Le called the crisis in Ukraine and NATO enlargement a mirror for observing American alliance-building in Asia and the Pacific, a trend which if unchecked would push the region “into a pit of fire.”