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China continues to walk a fine line in Russia's war in Ukraine

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Biden administration says it's concerned that China is considering giving Russia lethal support for its campaign in Ukraine. Nearly a year into the war, by all accounts, that hasn't happened yet. And Beijing continues to try to walk a very fine line. NPR's John Ruwitch reports from the China-Russia border.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: On the banks of the Amur River in the town of Heihe, there's a huge trading center.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: It's called Epinduo, which roughly translates to Russian Products Aplenty. The ground floor is a hypermarket full of stuff from Russia - crackers, vodka, soap. And upstairs...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Non-English language spoken).

RUWITCH: ...Yuanyuan is livestreaming on China's version of TikTok from a product showroom. She's flogging Russian sea salt, flour and other goods.

YUANYUAN: (Through interpreter) I feel like people are all supporting Russia. There was a time at the start of the war when people online were frenetic about buying Russian products just to show their support of Russia.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And she supports Russia too.

YUANYUAN: (Through interpreter) I hope Russia wins. We're pro-Russia.

RUWITCH: That sentiment is easy to understand in China, especially in a border town like Heihe. On the eve of the war last year, China and Russia announced that they had a no-limits partnership. Chinese officials speak regularly about how strong the country's ties are with Russia, and Beijing has refused to condemn the invasion of Ukraine. Tong Zhao is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He says 12 months of war has only enhanced something that Chinese policymakers believed at the outset.

TONG ZHAO: China has come to this conclusion that this is the war that was firstly provoked by the U.S.-led Western countries, and then it was used by the U.S.-led Western countries to weaken Russia.

RUWITCH: That scares Beijing, and it makes China more willing to show solidarity.

ZHAO: Russia being weakened basically means the team is weakened. And if Russia is defeated, then China becomes the next target.

RUWITCH: Recent Western military assistance to Ukraine has only added to Beijing's anxiety. But there are constraints.

LYLE GOLDSTEIN: China still has choices to make, and these choices are increasingly difficult.

RUWITCH: Lyle Goldstein is a visiting professor at Brown University who specializes in Chinese and Russian security.

GOLDSTEIN: Russia is not a big market for China, not compared to Korea, Japan or the United States or Europe. And I think that explains a lot of China's policy.

RUWITCH: Chinese trade with Russia has soared since the start of the war, but officials say it still amounts to just 3% of China's total trade. So on the war, Beijing's rhetoric has been shrill but its actions relatively restrained. That's what may have been on display in June, when senior Russia hand and vice foreign minister Le Yucheng was abruptly removed from his post. Carnegie's Tong Zhao again.

ZHAO: He had been very vocal in supporting Russia, you know, pushing China to adopt a sympathetic approach after Russia invaded Ukraine. And there was some internal reflection on that decision.

RUWITCH: Back in Heihe, the economy is finally starting to sputter back to life after three years of harsh COVID controls. But the border with Russia remains closed to individuals, and there's no traffic on a new bridge over the river. A street vendor frying meat and egg crepes says business is still way down.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: He says there aren't any Russians visiting like normal. And even though he doesn't understand high politics, he supports Russia in the war because they're good neighbors.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: Inside Epinduo, the trading center, shopkeeper Jia Changhai fiddles with some Russian stacking dolls. He complains his business is hurting because the Russian ruble has been hit hard by the war.

JIA CHANGHAI: (Through interpreter) We want Russia to end the war soon. When it ends, we can develop the economy. There is no time now to develop the economy.

RUWITCH: This week, China's top diplomat, Wang Yi, is visiting Moscow to prepare for a potential trip by Xi Jinping in the coming months. Beijing says it favors a political solution to end the war. But with Western leaders insistent on a Russian defeat, China's balancing act may become a little trickier as the conflict enters its second year. John Ruwitch, NPR News, in Heihe on the China-Russia border.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.