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China In Eurasia

Thursday 5 August 2021

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Anna Ilina, a member of the Ukrainian Olympic shooting team for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, receives a dose of China's Sinovac vaccine in Kyiv on April 15.

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China’s resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

I’m RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here’s what I’m following right now.

Ukraine Bends To Chinese 'Vaccine Diplomacy'

Ukraine bowed to Chinese pressure to take its name off an international statement about human rights abuses in China’s western Xinjiang region after Beijing threatened to limit trade and withhold access to COVID-19 vaccines, my colleague Yevhen Solonyna from RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service and I reported.

Finding Perspective: The AP reported in late June, citing anonymous Western diplomatic sources, that China allegedly threatened to block a planned shipment of at least 500,000 Chinese-made vaccines to Ukraine unless Kyiv dropped its support from the call for greater international scrutiny into Xinjiang, where Beijing is accused of running an internment camp system for Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.

We spoke to three Ukrainian lawmakers and a senior Ukrainian official familiar with the episode who confirmed that this is, indeed, what happened and also provided RFE/RL with new details about the incident.

Among those new details, the senior Ukrainian official told us that China's Foreign Ministry blocked export documents for the Sinovac shots and that Chinese officials “hinted at the reason” for the vaccines being withheld. As soon as Kyiv withdrew its signature from the statement, he said, the documents were processed and Ukraine received its expected batch of vaccines.

But the pressure wasn’t limited to vaccines.

Andriy Sharaskin, a Ukrainian lawmaker from the opposition Voice party who sits on parliament's Foreign Policy and Interparliamentary Cooperation Committee, told us Beijing also leaned on Kyiv by threatening to limit trade and offered more investment in Ukrainian infrastructure in exchange for Ukraine removing its signature.

On June 30, shortly after the episode, China and Ukraine announced an infrastructure agreement, with Beijing promising to increase investment and attract more Chinese companies into the country.

Why It Matters: China has denied that it engages in so-called “vaccine diplomacy,” where countries leverage the supply of shots to exercise diplomatic pressure and gain political concessions, but this appears to show otherwise.

The incident is also an interesting window into foreign policy discussions under way in Kyiv.

In general, the United States and the European Union are close partners for Ukraine and the country wants to further integrate with the West. Kyiv, however, has found itself frustrated with a string of Western policy decisions and is looking for new ways to draw investment into the country, which has left the Ukrainian government increasingly eyeing China.

As Solomiya Bobrovska, an opposition Ukrainian lawmaker who serves as secretary for parliament's foreign policy committee, told us about the decision to bend to Chinese pressure:

“Ukrainian leaders explained this [position] to us by saying that the collective West has a somewhat cold attitude towards Ukraine, and therefore it’s necessary to pursue the opportunities that are given from other sides,” Bobrovska said.

Read More

● Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba recently authored an article for Foreign Affairs titled Ukraine Is Part of the West, in which he calls for leaders to offer Kyiv a road map for EU and NATO membership.

● Part of Kyiv’s frustration is a recent U.S.-German deal to allow Nord Stream 2, a Russian gas pipeline that will bypass Ukraine. Amy Mackinnon, Robbie Gramer, and Jack Detsch have a good piece on the pipeline’s tumultuous history for Foreign Policy.

Expert Corner: Chinese Tech Spreads Across Eurasia

Readers asked: "How quickly is Chinese tech being adopted across Eurasia and what are its implications?"

To find out more, I asked Bradley Jardine, a fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States.

“Chinese tech is being rapidly adopted across Eurasia and includes everything from [telecommunications] and traffic cameras to facial-recognition payment systems. One overlooked implication of enormous consequence is that this technology may facilitate China's growing use of transnational repression due to the lack of regulations on data privacy.

“In 2019, a Uyghur man was stopped at mainland China's border with Hong Kong and interrogated for three days because someone on his WeChat contact list had ‘checked in’ at Mecca, a place of pilgrimage for Muslims. In closely monitored Central Asia, with its large Uyghur diaspora, the proliferation of Chinese technology will result in growing surveillance and harassment of this vulnerable community.”

Do you have a question about China’s growing footprint in Eurasia? Send it to me at StandishR@rferl.org or reply directly to this e-mail and I’ll get it answered by leading experts and policymakers.

Three More Stories From Eurasia

1. Another Attack On Chinese Workers In Pakistan

Two weeks after an explosion on a bus carrying Chinese and Pakistani personnel in northwest Pakistan, gunmen opened fire on two Chinese workers in Karachi on July 28, RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal reported.

What Happened: The string of incidents has left Beijing reevaluating how best to protect its citizens and interests in the country, which has become strategically important as the centerpiece of its multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, as I reported here.

The attacks come as the region braces itself for a worsening security situation in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of American troops, which could spill over into neighboring countries like Pakistan.

The July 14 bus explosion that killed 13 people, including nine Chinese workers, was the deadliest attack ever on Chinese citizens abroad. The workers suffered serious injuries from the shooting, but both are still alive.

The authorities are still investigating both attacks -- Pakistani law enforcement announced that they had arrested two suspects in connection with the explosion -- but the motive behind the attacks is not immediately clear, and no group has claimed responsibility for either incident.

Looking Ahead: While Chinese workers and diplomats have been targeted before in Pakistan, the scope and frequency of the attacks is growing.

This has left Beijing increasingly focused on how to shore up its security in the region. Chinese officials have had several meetings about this with their Pakistani counterparts, particularly the military and intelligence services, and the attacks have also led to speculation that Beijing could push to provide its own security, as it does in many other countries.

But as Ayesha Siddiqa, a research associate at London's School of Oriental and African Studies, explained to me, Islamabad is strongly against such a shift:

“There will be more pressure on Pakistan to protect the Chinese and maybe let the Chinese take care of their own security,” she said. “But Pakistan absolutely does not want this. They do not want Chinese boots on the ground.”

2. Rising To Where?

China’s status in the world has risen dramatically in recent years and Beijing’s clout continues to grow. A few recent developments illustrate this rise in interesting -- and at times contradictory -- ways.

The Breakdown: The Lowly Institute recently published a study looking at the evolution of Chinese diplomacy and compared visits by foreign leaders to China versus to the United States, showing a major increase in face-to-face visits to Beijing.

As the report noted: “In 2019, the year before COVID-19 halted most travel, 79 foreign leaders visited China, while only 27 called on the United States. More world leaders have visited China than the United States in every year since 2013, a sharp turnaround from the American dominance of the early post-Cold War era.”

On the flip side, The Economist had an interesting piece looking at the increase in Chinese asylum seekers, which saw a massive uptick since 2012 when President Xi Jinping took power and has coincided with more repressive policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

Since Xi took the helm, “613,000 Chinese nationals have applied for asylum in another country. About 70 percent of them sought asylum in America in 2020.”

Finally, Qin Gang, one of the pioneers of China’s brash and confrontational “Wolf Warrior diplomacy,” -- that is, the combative tone taken by the country’s diplomats online -- is headed to Washington as Beijing’s new ambassador. It will be an interesting test to see what sort of tone Qin adopts as he navigates a fraught U.S.-China relationship.

This all paints a complex picture moving forward. China’s global status is elevated, but the country is becoming more repressive at home. Meanwhile, its new international stature is just beginning to face its first tests abroad.

3. An Island Divided

Current Time has produced a documentary looking at Bolshoi Ussuriysky Island, an outpost on the Amur River in Russia’s Far East that was disputed by Beijing and Moscow for decades but which has now been divided almost equally between the two countries. You can watch part of the video here.

Compare And Contrast: The island, known as Heixiazi in Chinese, is an interesting case study in Sino-Russian relations.

Not only does it illustrate the disconnect between top leaders looking to forge a warmer relationship and the long-standing suspicions from people on the ground, it also shows the disparity between local governments.

Since the formal division in 2008, Russian developers have put forward plans to make the island an important gateway for trade and travel with China, but on the Russian side most people live in dilapidated homes with minimal infrastructure and lack access to many important government services.

The full documentary can be viewed here.

Across The Supercontinent

The Protester: Pickets outside the Chinese Consulate in Almaty have continued for five months as people search for their relatives in China that they believe have been caught up in Beijing’s internment camp system in Xinjiang.

My colleague Nurtay Lakhanuly from RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service profiles Qalida Akytkhan, a 67-year-old pensioner who has become a mainstay of the demonstrations as she tries to find her family members in China.

The Review: Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said that the bloc will publish a report after the summer reviewing its relationship with China. You can read the rest of Borrell’s interview in Spain's El Pais newspaper here.

Reinforcements: Kyrgyzstan received 1.25 million doses of another Chinese vaccine, Sinopharm, RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service reported. To date, the country has bought 2.35 million shots from its neighbor to the east.

From Russia With...: Officials from Nanjing, the Chinese city that is at the heart of a current COVID outbreak in the country, have said that they believe the source of the infection is an Air China passenger flight that arrived from Moscow.

One Thing To Watch

Many observers thought that both Beijing and the incoming Biden administration would look to cool things down after four years of testy relations under former U.S. President Donald Trump, but this doesn't look to be the case.

Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Wendy Sherman wrapped up a high-level visit to China on July 26 during which she met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng. It was reportedly a tense meeting and a harbinger of things to come. Any repair in relations seems unlikely and the best each side can hope for is to prevent things from deteriorating further.

As Sherman told NPR following her meeting in China: “I think we have to insist that this is a very complex relationship that involves competition, cooperation, and times where it's adversarial and we're going to challenge what China does.”

That’s all from me for now. Don’t forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.

Until next time,

Reid Standish

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here. It will be sent to your in-box on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

Ukrainian officials and lawmakers told RFE/RL that Kyiv gave in to Chinese pressure to remove its name from an international statement about human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

KYIV -- Ukraine succumbed to Chinese pressure to remove its name from an international statement about human rights abuses in China’s western Xinjiang region by threatening to limit trade and withhold access to COVID-19 vaccines, Ukrainian officials and lawmakers with knowledge of the issue told RFE/RL.

After initially joining with more than 40 other countries on June 22, Kyiv withdrew its signature two days later from a statement at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva that called for China to allow independent observers immediate access to Xinjiang, where Beijing is operating a camp system that UN officials estimate has interned more than 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities.

The incident was first reported by AP last month citing Western diplomats speaking anonymously. RFE/RL has since spoken to three Ukrainian lawmakers and a senior government official who confirmed the report and provided new details.

Andriy Sharaskin, a Ukrainian lawmaker from the opposition Voice party who sits on parliament's Foreign Policy and Interparliamentary Cooperation Committee, told RFE/RL that Ukraine gave in to strong diplomatic pressure from China to withdraw its signature from the statement.

“[The Chinese Foreign Ministry] demanded that Ukraine withdraw its signature from the international statement on Uyghurs,” Sharaskin said. “This [pressure] continued until the signature was revoked.”

A senior Ukrainian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, also confirmed this version of events to RFE/RL.

The official said China's Foreign Ministry blocked export documents for Chinese vaccines and that Beijing officials “hinted at the reason” for the shots being withheld. As soon as Kyiv withdrew its signature from the statement, he said, the documents were processed and Ukraine received its expected batch of Chinese-made Sinovac vaccines.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy

Maria Ionova, a member of parliament from the European Solidarity party who chairs a subcommittee on Ukraine's strategic course for European Union and NATO membership, and Solomiya Bobrovska, an opposition Ukrainian lawmaker who serves as secretary for parliament's foreign policy committee, told RFE/RL that Chinese pressure led to Ukraine removing its signature from the statement calling for greater scrutiny of alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Ukraine's Foreign Ministry and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's administration did not respond to RFE/RL requests for comment.

Oleksandr Merezhko, a lawmaker from the majority Servant of the People party who chairs Ukraine’s parliamentary committee on foreign policy, told RFE/RL he was not aware of any overt pressure or demands placed on Kyiv by Beijing.

“I don’t think that China has openly asked the Ukrainian government to not sign anything,” he said.

The AP reported on June 25, citing Western diplomatic sources, that the alleged pressure centered on a threat to block a planned shipment of at least 500,000 Chinese-made vaccines to Ukraine unless it dropped its support for the diplomatic statement.

Following the AP report, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said it does not attach political demands to supplying vaccines and that while it welcomes Kyiv’s decision to remove its name from the statement, it had not “heard that Ukraine has encountered any difficulty in importing vaccines from China.”

Bobrovska said the Chinese pressure was “really about refusing to sign [the statement] in exchange for vaccines,” but Sharaskin added that Beijing also leaned on Kyiv by threatening to limit trade and offered more investment in Ukrainian infrastructure in exchange for the revocation of Kyiv's signature.

On June 30, shortly after withdrawing its signature, China and Ukraine announced an infrastructure agreement with Beijing promising to increase investment and attract more Chinese companies into the country.

The Chinese Embassy in Kyiv did not respond to RFE/RL’s request for comment on the reports.

Locked Up In China: The Plight Of Xinjiang's Muslims

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty is partnering with its sister organization, Radio Free Asia, to highlight the plight of Muslims living in China's western province of Xinjiang.

The episode comes as Ukraine looks to deepen its relationship with China and position itself to navigate a growing global competition between Beijing and Washington.

Ukraine has been at war with Russia-backed forces in its eastern Donbas region since 2014, following Moscow’s seizure of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, and Kyiv has aspirations to further integrate with the EU and NATO.

Ukraine, however, is also looking to build strong economic ties with Beijing as it reorients its economy away from Russia, and has recently found itself frustrated with Western policy moves. Those include a U.S.-German decision to finish the Nord Stream 2 pipeline despite Kyiv's objections and Ukraine being blocked from access to U.S.-produced vaccines, positions that have left Kyiv eyeing closer ties to China.

“Ukrainian leaders explained this [position] to us by saying that the collective West has a somewhat cold attitude towards Ukraine, and therefore it’s necessary to pursue the opportunities that are given from other sides,” Bobrovska said.

Courting China

China and Ukraine have a complicated relationship that has changed dramatically since the outbreak of fighting with Russia-backed forces in 2014.

While the EU represents Ukraine’s largest trading relationship, China has overtaken Russia as Kyiv’s single-largest trading partner, accounting for 14.4 percent of the country’s imports and 15.3 percent of its exports. Likewise, both Beijing and Kyiv have offered one another tacit political support, with China never recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Ukraine viewing Taiwan as part of China.

Kyiv-Beijing ties were strained earlier this year when Ukraine blocked Chinese investors from acquiring the Ukrainian aerospace company Motor Sich, reportedly due to lobbying from Washington, which wanted to block China from acquiring valuable military technologies from the Ukrainian firm.

“They did [the United States] a very serious favor by not selling [Motor Sich] to the Chinese,” John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told RFE/RL.

The June 30 agreement between China and Ukraine, while short on specifics, outlines broad cooperation to attract Chinese investment into railways, airports, and ports, as well as telecommunications infrastructure in Ukraine as Kyiv looks to better position itself within China’s multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative.

The Motor Sich display booth showcasing the Ukrainian company's engines at the Aviation Expo China in Beijing in September 2017.
The Motor Sich display booth showcasing the Ukrainian company's engines at the Aviation Expo China in Beijing in September 2017.

Several Ukrainian politicians have also offered statements that hint towards a rapprochement with Beijing following the Motor Sich saga and anger towards Washington reaching an agreement with Germany to complete Nord Stream 2, a controversial Russian gas pipeline to Europe that bypasses Ukraine and Kyiv says undermines its energy security.

This is part of a wider trend of deepening ties between Beijing and Kyiv that could see Ukraine shifting its foreign policy over time, Mykhaylo Honchar, the president of the Strategy XXI Center for Global Studies, a Kyiv-based think tank, told RFE/RL.

Zelenskiy, who is set to make his first White House visit with President Joe Biden on August 30, told Axios in February that he did not consider China to be a major geopolitical threat and that he disagreed with Washington’s growing competition with Beijing.

“Ukraine is trying its best to hedge geopolitically,” Olga Oliker, the program director for Europe and Central Asia at the International Crisis Group, told RFE/RL. “But Ukraine doesn’t have a lot of equal relationships. This is the danger of being a weaker country in the international system.”

Between East And West

Kyiv’s ties to Washington have been crucial for Ukraine since 2014, as the United States and other EU countries have offered economic, political, and military assistance to the country in its standoff with Russia.

But ties between Ukraine and the United States have also been frayed in recent years.

Kyiv has found itself drawn into U.S. domestic politics, most notably in July 2019 when U.S. President Donald Trump triggered a whistleblower complaint that led to his impeachment after a phone call he had with Zelenskiy.

During that call, Trump asked the Ukrainian leader for a “favor,” suggesting that he wanted Kyiv to announce an investigation into Hunter Biden, the son of Joe Biden -- who at the time was emerging as a likely challenger to Trump in the 2020 election -- in return for him releasing critical military aid to Ukraine.

More recently, a lack of access to Western vaccines has also been a sore spot for Zelenskiy, who has openly talked about Ukraine’s struggles in procuring enough injections for its population of 44 million.

In an end-of-the-year statement to Ukrainians, Zelenskiy wrote bitterly that, unfortunately, “the richest” countries would have vaccines first.

In search of doses and increasingly hit hard by COVID-19, Kyiv turned to Beijing for vaccines, eventually placing an order for 1.9 million Chinese-made Sinovac shots.

It was a shipment of this batch of vaccines that was held up by Beijing to pressure Kyiv to drop its name from the statement in Geneva.

Bobrovska, Ionova, and Sharaskin all expressed concern that Kyiv -- by succumbing to Chinese pressure -- could open the door to similar incidents in the future. All three lawmakers have said they plan to use their parliamentary powers to call for more information about other potential episodes of Chinese pressure being placed on Ukraine.

“There are a number of ultimatums that China is giving to Ukraine,” Bobrovska said. “But it is Ukraine's right to agree to them or not. I am sorry that Ukraine went for it and did not sign the document.”

Written and reported by Reid Standish in Prague with reporting by RFE/RL Ukrainian Service correspondent Yevhen Solonyna in Kyiv.

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About The Newsletter

In recent years, it has become impossible to tell the biggest stories shaping Eurasia without considering China’s resurgent influence in local business, politics, security, and culture.

Subscribe to this dispatch in which correspondent Reid Standish builds on the local reporting from RFE/RL’s journalists across Eurasia to give you unique insights into Beijing’s ambitions and challenges.

The newsletter is sent on the first and third Wednesdays of each month.

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