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China has a long-standing policy of (at least publicly) not interfering in other countries internal affairs, and condemning any other country's 'interference' (read criticism) in its own 'internal' affairs (including Xinjiang, Hong Kong, etc).

China recognises Ukraine as a sovereign nation, with Kiev as its capital, and the two countries have diplomatic relations. So Ukrainian territory cannot be considered internal to Russia.

However, when it came to a vote in the UN Security Council on a resolution condemning the Russian actions in Ukraine, they abstained.

So in this scenario, when Russia clearly interfered in Ukraine's internal affairs (by a full-scale invasion), it is suddenly ok.

How do they justify these two apparently contradictory positions?

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    I challenge your assumption that abstaining is tacit support. India abstained, is it tacitly supporting Russia? In any case, the tension you highlight is exactly why they abstained instead of voting with Russia.
    – H Huang
    Mar 1 at 18:07
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    They might not consider Russia's invasion of Ukraine an invasion, and instead consider it as Russia taking care of its "internal" affairs - similar to what its views on Taiwan are. Mar 1 at 18:08
  • Can you explain what is contradictory about a policy of non-interference in other countries affairs and then acting by officially doing nothing about a conflict by abstaining from a vote of condemnation? IMO it's pretty hard to be less officially interfering than by abstaining from a vote.
    – Just Me
    Mar 1 at 18:17
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    @JustMe Chinese policy is not just that they don't interfere in other countries' internal affairs. It's that they condemn anyone who interferes in the internal affairs of another country - esp China. Which is what Russia is doing, by any definition of 'internal' or 'interfering'
    – mdarwin
    Mar 1 at 19:28
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    Ukraine was core part of Russia, like Taiwan was core part of China, this could be a parallel.
    – convert
    Mar 1 at 22:11

3 Answers 3

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(Answering only "How do they justify..."):

It is not uncommon for countries to say one thing and do another. The USA stood for freedom and democracy, yet sponsored some very nasty governments in Central America during the 80s. The fact that it was to fight Communism, an atrocious political system, does not excuse their behavior in that particular instance.

At some point, it just becomes a PR/marketing gig - you can ignore/rephrase/whataboutism things a fair bit before you run out of credibility.

Russia's activities in Ukraine seems to be hitting the limits of how much you can spin things, but China's "non-interference position" is not even close to the limits of what can be achieved.

Keep in mind also that most countries only marginally try to "convince" others of their position. They typically have 3 audiences:

  • supporters. Those won't see the problem as you see it and will support China anyways.

  • opponents. Those already don't like you.

  • in-betweeners. That's a much smaller group and likely not that influential in the case of China: countries have already picked sides in the above camps.

While this is a question about China, the same logic can be applied to the behavior of most countries you'd want to "call out".

And I am not sure China is supporting Russia all that much here, tacitly or not. Russia is a useful partner for them and they may even feel sympathy for them (after all their goals wrt Taiwan is much like Russia's wrt Ukraine). But, right now, Russia is a public perception disaster and China's abstention on the UN vote is an indication of how careful they are being about being lumped with Russia, in this instance.

p.s. Most of this answer relates to international relations. As to the internal audience, a country's population, China has it easier than most: it can just censor things that question its official position. And even with a free press, books like Manufacturing Consent give some useful tricks. You don't have to like Chomsky to recognize the authors are making some extremely valid points in it.

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  • Have you considered that China is balancing pro-sovereignty and anti-Western-inspired-democracy-movement positions, and settling on abstention?
    – o.m.
    Mar 1 at 19:07
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    @o.m. For sure. There's certainly a bunch of reasons China is doing what it's doing. But we wouldn't necessarily know the exact mix - in a non-democracy, not needing to convince the electorate the government can keep its reasons to itself. And even with democracy, as in the Iraq War people are still going about WMD vs oil. But that's not primarily what this answer is addressing. It's how you can spin things - "How do they justify". Mar 1 at 19:09
  • I quite agree that China's position is not new, and lots of countries have behaved even more hypocritically in the past. I'm just wondering how they hold that line at the moment.
    – mdarwin
    Mar 1 at 19:32
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In not sure that China has "tacitly supported" at all.

It abstained rather than siding with Russia in the UN vote - a position that politically reads as a huge snub between the lines when Russia was looking for any sign of positive support at all. So I think you're reading it wrongly. Its not tacit support. Its as far as they can safely go, to deny support, while not actively making an enemy of them in public.

More recently a day or so ago, it issued a statement that it supports Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity, which it didn't have to issue at all:

In a statement on the Russo-Ukraine was released on Friday, China said that Ukraine's territory and sovereignty should be respected and urged talks between Ukraine and Russia as soon as possible. China also called for a diplomatic resolution to the crisis as soon as possible. 

Shortly after, senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi stated that China has a clear position respecting the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all countries, including Ukraine. Russia's concerns about NATO's eastwards expansion should be taken seriously and properly addressed, he added, though the current situation in Ukraine is something China does not want to see and all parties should exercise restraint.

So Ukraine's sovereignty and territory are both to be "respected", and Russia's concerns should be "taken seriously" and "properly addressed".

As to why, we cant be sure but this is my guess. China has 3 choices here:

  • Side with Russia, but it can see which way the wind is blowing. This puts it on a side against most other countries, and Russia is clearly not just getting token opposition from virtually the entire world - including most of Chinas main markets.

  • Side against Russia (but low key). This means it avoids being on the wrong side of history this time, more importantly in a battle for global importance and power, this is a perfect time to make a play for further improvements to its position. Russia is isolated globally and wants support, a denial of support may earn dislike, but in real political outcome, reduces Russia's practical ability to assail Chinas position or battle it for a more dominant spot.

    (Also, If I was China, considering who I wanted to be the "final boss" in the long term battle for world power, I'd much rather be up against the US than Russia. Not right on the doorstep, and a bit more predictable, and easier to win lowkey economically with less risk. So knocking Russia's ability to play for a top spot when they are vulnerable, sounds okay. It also provides something that could be advantageous in future other talks, like trade talks, that it threw some weight behind the positions the west took, as well.) This is of course speculative but its the kind of calculation that could have gone on....

  • Be extremely neutral. Safe but maybe gets hit with sanctions too. Can it actually be neutral? After all, to be neutral means it has to trade with Russia or not. And there may be more advantages than risks, in siding against, compared to being neutral, in how it's perceived.

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  • "So Ukraine's sovereignty and territory are both to be "respected", and Russia's concerns should be "taken seriously" and "properly addressed"." The word "respecting" can be either the present participle of "respect" or a synonym of "on". We would have to look at the original Chinese (if there is any) to be sure, but all this statement says for sure is that China has a position on Ukraine's sovereignty and territory (that they refuse to share, even after repeatedly being asked what it is) while suggesting that Russian has the right to dictate foreign policy to Ukraine. Mar 2 at 19:11
  • Yes. Probably would need the original Chinese for nuance and accuracy check. Also to interpret if any terms or phrases used, had "dog whistle" or other subtle political-speak meanings. Good point.
    – Stilez
    Mar 3 at 1:08
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China does not want to alienate either country Ukraine and Russia because they have political and economics relations with both. So the best middle ground is to not Condemn Russia but also not support their invasion.

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