patten139_Nicolas Asfouri - PoolGetty Images_putinxi Nicolas Asfouri/Pool/Getty Images

Xi Jinping’s Choice

Is China a collaborator and accomplice in Russian President Vladimir Putin’s terrible crime against Ukraine, or can it become a responsible stakeholder in a peaceful and prosperous world? Chinese President Xi Jinping cannot fudge the question indefinitely.

LONDON – For Chinese President Xi Jinping, the initial response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutal war on Ukraine must have seemed a no-brainer. It is almost inconceivable that these two self-proclaimed kindred spirits had not discussed Putin’s invasion plans at their early February meeting in Beijing, just before the start of the Winter Olympics. After all, had Putin duped Xi, what would that tell Xi about the Kremlin’s dependability as an ally, and what would it say about Xi’s diplomatic skills?

All that Putin had to do in return for Xi’s connivance, it seems, was to postpone sending his tanks into Ukraine until the Beijing Games were over. Russian bombs and rockets thus began blasting Ukraine’s cities and people four days after the curtain came down on the spectacle in China, and when the United Nations Security Council met shortly afterward, Xi kept his side of the bargain: China abstained on the vote to censure Russia.

At the UN and since, China has argued that Russia was not guilty of an “invasion,” a word apparently freighted with suggestions that Russia had committed an international crime. Nonetheless, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi dug out of China’s diplomatic toolbox the principle of peaceful coexistence that it embraced in 1955, telling us that China always insisted on national sovereignty and non-intervention in other countries’ internal affairs. That, he added, of course included Ukraine, a country with which China had a strong trading relationship (and which provided the ship that China transformed into its first aircraft carrier). China also included Ukraine in its Belt and Road Initiative, which finances large-scale infrastructure investment in member countries.

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