China to Ukraine: We deeply regret this invasion ... maybe

Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Do they? Perhaps, although not enough to refrain from using it to their advantage. Ukraine’s foreign minister urged his counterpart in China to use their leverage to pressure Vladimir Putin to end the war and withdraw his troops back to Russia. According to AFP, China’s foreign minister declared that Beijing “deeply regrets” the Russian invasion. Or is it just the casualties from Russian targeting of civilians?


According to other news reports, though, China’s regrets mostly focus on the casualties, not Russian military aggression itself:

Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin on Tuesday reiterated China’s call for the “reasonable security concerns” of all countries to be respected, and assertion that the Ukraine issue has “a complex reality.”

Russia’s “legitimate security demands should be taken seriously and properly addressed” in the face of NATO’s expansion eastward, Wang told reporters at a daily briefing.

“We express regret over the casualties. The current situation is not something we want to see,” Wang said.

China has been playing coy for the last few days, following its traditional path of playing all sides against the middle while it searches for the biggest possible benefit for the Xi regime. In this case, though, the caution might have more immediate and practical causes. Apparently the Soviet — excuse me, Russian — invasion took China by surprise to the point where they failed to get their own people out of the way:

China has started evacuating its citizens from Ukraine, state media reported Tuesday, amid fears for their safety due to the invasion by Beijing’s ally Russia but also reports of resulting hostility from angry Ukrainians.

Some 600 Chinese students were evacuated Monday from Kyiv and the southern port city of Odessa, the state-run Global Times newspaper reported, citing the Chinese embassy in the Ukrainian capital.

They travelled by bus to neighboring Moldova under an embassy escort and local police protection, according to the report, which cited an evacuee as saying the six-hour journey was “safe and smooth”.

A further 1,000 Chinese nationals will leave Ukraine on Tuesday bound for Poland and Slovakia, both European Union member states, the report added.


Oddly, they didn’t even begin this process until the invasion kicked off Thursday:

While countries including the US, UK and Japan evacuated diplomats and urged citizens to leave in the weeks before the invasion, China waited until Thursday before announcing it would organize charter flights to evacuate its nationals.

But the flights have not yet materialized, and Ukraine later closed its airspace, leaving the Chinese ambassador to deny he had fled Kyiv and stress the need to “wait until it is safe” to evacuate during a Sunday video message.

China has said around 6,000 of its citizens are based in Ukraine for work and study.

Why did China wait until the last minute, or actually beyond, to get its people out? Did they not know that Putin would invade, even after all the saber-rattling and the mass movement of troops to Ukraine’s borders? An analysis at Stimson from senior fellow Yun Sun postulates that Putin may have “played” Beijing. The failure to evacuate its citizens might be the strongest evidence that Xi got suckered:

Even after Russia sent troops on February 21, top Chinese experts still refused to believe a war was imminent. On February 22, an article titled “War Will Not Happen, But Frictions Will Continue” was widely circulated in Chinese media. The theme was that a Russian invasion was not in the cards. On the same day, Professor Shen Yi of Fudan University gave a talk titled “A war that will never happen: Ukraine through the lens of great power games among the U.S., Europe, and Russia.” One of the most popular IR scholars in China, Professor Jin Canrong of Renmin University, who had predicted the impossibility of the war, posted his apologies on his social media on February 24 that he was “wrong again” in his prediction. The only prominent Chinese scholar who publicly predicted a war between Russia and Ukraine was Professor Tang Shiping from Fudan University. Based on the model about state behavior that he developed, he predicted that there was a significant probability that Russia would invade Ukraine before the end of May.

If scholars and experts do not count, the government officials’ attitude will serve as stronger evidence of the Chinese lack of prior knowledge. According to the New York Times, in the past three months, Biden administration officials repeatedly reached out to their Chinese counterparts sharing information about Russia’s impending invasion and were consistently rebuffed by senior Chinese diplomats, including the Foreign Minister and the Chinese Ambassador to the U.S., who said they “did not think an invasion was in the works.”

Skeptics might say that they were lying in order to cover up for Putin. However, according to Chinese nationals in Ukraine, the Chinese Embassy in Kyiv denied the possibility of a war as recent as the week of February 14 and had made no evacuation effort or plan until after Russia launched its full-scale invasion. In fact, the embassy only began to register the 6,000+ Chinese nationals in Ukraine the day after the invasion. After realizing that chartered planes were not an option due to the war, the embassy started to coordinate “other means” on February 27. Given the high importance of protecting overseas Chinese nationals in the war zones for Beijing (as repeatedly portrayed in the infamous “Wolf Warrior” movie series), it is unthinkable that Beijing knew but did not bother to prepare.


It’s possible that China’s claiming ignorance for its own strategic purposes, ie, to keep from getting hit with sanctions as an accomplice. However, incompetence is a a bad look for tyrants and autocrats, who have to create an atmosphere of superiority to keep upstarts from challenging their grip on power:

Other than this “mirror image bias,” the Chinese were also played by Russia. As manifested by the February 4 Joint Statement, the Russians had exhaustively and repeatedly explained their grievances over the expansion of NATO and that Russia had to take actions to address its “reasonable security concerns.” The Chinese position in the Joint Statement suggested its support of these two Russian positions. But as argued above, the Chinese did not expect a full Russian invasion, and they thought China would at most have to stand with Russia for its bluffing and coercion. As such, the understanding and support China rendered were qualified in the Chinese view and not meant to be a blank check for Russia to invade.

This ambiguity is precisely where Putin played China. Where the Chinese meant limited support for Russia’s “reasonable security concerns,” Putin projected an image of Chinese support with “no limits.” That term was specifically used in the Joint Statement to describe their bilateral cooperation. The beauty of Putin’s play is that China cannot rebuff and clarify they didn’t know. If they do, it would be telling the world that China was played by Russia and their alignment is not nearly as solid as China wanted the U.S. to believe.


That’s precisely the problem Putin has now, or will have very soon, after his incompetent decision to invade Ukraine and expose the myriad weaknesses of the Russian military. It’s possible that this is a head fake, but it’s not likely.

So what is likely? Yun Sun could be correct that Putin sandbagged Xi on Ukraine. If so, Xi’s taking it rather calmly, although actions over the weekend to cut off credit lines for Russian oil shipments sent a verrrryyy interesting signal. At the topline, though, Xi’s probably trapped in his decision to sign what looks like the Soviet side of this new Molotov-Ribbentrop pact.

Still, Xi’s not above using it for his own ends:

American support for Taiwan will be in vain, a Chinese government spokesperson has said, as a delegation of former U.S. officials landed in Taipei on Tuesday—a move seen as President Joe Biden’s way of reassuring the island nation’s public following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. …

“The will of the Chinese people to defend our national sovereignty and territorial integrity is unwavering,” China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told a daily press briefing.

“Whoever the United States sends to show so-called support for Taiwan will be futile.”

This sounds like a bluff, perhaps now more than ever. Xi just got a big whiff of Western unity erupting around a security provocation, which is precisely what he (and Putin) wanted to destroy. Also, Taiwan is better armed and an attack on it would have far more difficult lines of communication, and it’s also been a very long time since China’s military had to perform in the field against a skilled opponent. The West proved more resilient than Xi and Putin predicted, and now all sorts of new calculations will have to be made in both Moscow and Beijing.


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