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.
China has so far refused to condemn Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and it’s unclear whether reports of atrocities by Russian soldiers will alter Chinese support.
Finding Perspective: Given the muted reaction out of Beijing as photos and videos emerged over the weekend of people in civilian clothes -- some with their hands bound behind their backs -- shot dead in the town of Bucha, outside of Kyiv, it appears there is little that can alter China’s backing of Russia.
Chinese officials have largely been silent. A few Chinese Embassy social media feeds around the world have reposted images and comments from Russian Embassy accounts questioning the legitimacy of the Bucha reports, and Zhang Jun, China’s ambassador to the UN, called the images “disturbing” but added that accusations should be based on facts and that details were not yet verified.
Chinese state-run media have also treaded cautiously. Most outlets have not mentioned the killings in Bucha at all, while those that have reported on them have simply repeated Moscow’s denials that Russian forces were involved.
Online in China, however, discussion of the atrocities has been active, and not only echoing Russian denials of responsibility but also claims from Moscow that the Bucha killings are “another hoax,” as the Russian Defense Ministry and other officials have said.
Weibo, the popular Chinese social media site, has been full of posts by leading bloggers questioning not only reports about Russian involvement but also the veracity of the images and videos that have emerged of the corpses, with some blaming Ukrainian fighters for the civilian deaths.
While details are still emerging about Bucha and investigations are under way, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy alleged that Russia had tortured and killed more than 300 civilians in the area and said in remarks to the UN Security Council that Kyiv has irrefutable evidence to support its claims.
Prior to news of the killings, I surveyed a group of leading experts about how they viewed the relationship between Beijing and Moscow after more than a month of war. Those insights resonate in the aftermath of the killings.
Steve Tsang of SOAS University London told me that China and Russia are wedded together for the time being because “the reality is that China’s policy is dictated by [President] Xi [Jinping] and he supports Putin.”
Yurii Poita, head of the Asia-Pacific Section at the Kyiv-based Center for Army, Conversion, and Disarmament Studies, told me that while the Ukrainian government is looking to maintain friendly relations with Beijing, China’s backing of Russia has deeply hurt the country’s perception in Ukraine, both with the public and behind-the-scenes politically.
“In the [Ukrainian] expert community, it is believed that China -- with its tacit consent for Moscow’s war -- also bears its share of responsibility for the Russian invasion and even that China’s lack of condemnation of the Kremlin’s actions indicates an indirect support for Russia’s war crimes.”
● Russia’s Defense Ministry said that “all Russian units withdrew completely from Bucha” around March 30 and could therefore not be responsible for any atrocities, but an analysis of satellite images by The New York Times rebuts those claims, showing that many of the civilians were killed more than three weeks ago. Read it here.
● I interviewed the Brookings Institution’s Jessica Brandt about whether Russia will start to borrow from China’s online censorship controls and how the two governments are pushing similar disinformation narratives for different ends.
Expert Corner: China's Afghanistan Diplomacy
Readers asked: “China hosted a series of meetings about Afghanistan last week with representatives from Russia, the United States, the Taliban, and South and Central Asian countries. What’s behind Beijing’s diplomacy?”
To find out more, I asked Giulia Sciorati, a fellow at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies:
“With the Ukraine crisis making the international system even more unstable, China is looking at other hot spots of instability that might emerge. So the Afghanistan meetings that China sponsored are actually a signal of where Beijing’s worries currently are.
“Afghanistan is very troublesome for Beijing. It’s geographically close to China and its security situation could spill over. The future of the country is far from resolved following the chaotic U.S. withdrawal in August 2021, and Afghanistan is directly tied to former Soviet states in the region that might also be facing some sort of instability following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
"The meeting is a way to assess the situation in Afghanistan, but also an opportunity to use the country as a shared issue to create dialogue and bring everyone to a shared table at a time when all these countries are very divided and relations are tense.”
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. To The Viktor Go The Spoils
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party won a major victory in April 3 elections.
The vote and its aftermath has many story threads, from potential voting irregularities to the future of Hungarian democracy, as my colleague Andy Heil explains here. But one big takeaway is that Beijing will retain a friendly outpost inside the European Union.
What It Means: Peter Marki-Zay, Orban’s opposition challenger in the election, had pledged to shake up the country’s warm relationship with China and take aim at some controversial Chinese-funded projects in the country.
With Orban once again firmly embedded in Budapest, those projects are now safe. The big question is what kind of new projects could be in store and how Hungary and China’s relationship will evolve.
With Beijing’s relations with Brussels increasingly frayed, Orban is perhaps more important to China as a partner than ever and could continue to exploit the EU’s requirement for unanimity in crafting foreign policy to block some critical moves against China.
Beijing could also become increasingly important for Orban. The prime minister also toes a pro-Moscow line and has been critical of Zelenskiy throughout the campaign, which has angered Western partners far and wide. China was already an attractive source of investment for Budapest, and that could grow.
Another big question is what happens with Fudan University's Budapest campus, which sparked protests in 2021 over the government’s plans to finance the project with taxpayer funds. Orban had previously said the project would get put to a vote and the campus’s future looked tenuous, but with few obstacles now to his agenda the university could become a reality.
2. “Not Business As Usual”
China and the EU held a tense summit on April 1, in which Brussels looked to warn Beijing that there will be consequences if it provides aid to Russia amid its invasion of Ukraine, as I reported here.
But while China assured the EU that it would seek peace in Ukraine, it said this would be on its own terms.
What You Need To Know: Ties between Beijing and Brussels were already delicate, but Beijing’s alignment with Russia during its war in Ukraine has undercut its relations with the EU.
At the summit, the European strategy was to make it clear to China that more outright support for Russia would come at the expense of its wider relationship with the EU.
As China’s largest trading market, the EU believes it has leverage to push this and was betting that Beijing would not want to jeopardize that relationship while also facing headwinds from a growing COVID outbreak inside China, a financial crisis in the country’s property sector, and a crucial Communist Party congress in the fall at which Xi is looking to extend his rule.
Beijing’s official comments about the summit showed that it was looking to deflect pressure for a tougher stance toward Russia, while EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said "this was not exactly a dialogue, maybe a dialogue of the deaf” when describing the summit.
3. Khan In The Hot Seat
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s political future is hanging in the balance, with Pakistan’s Supreme Court weighing in on the legality of his attempt to block a no-confidence vote to oust him, my colleagues at RFE/RL’s Gandhara reported.
The Takeaway: The political crisis will have big ramifications for China, which has invested heavily in Pakistan as the flagship area for its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).
Khan lost his parliamentary majority last week and had been facing a no-confidence vote brought forward by a united opposition.
But the deputy speaker of the National Assembly, Qasim Suri, a member of Khan’s Tehrik-e Insaf (PTI) party, rejected the motion as unconstitutional and part of a foreign conspiracy.
Khan had claimed that the no-confidence motion was an attack against him by the United States in retaliation for his close relations with Russia and China -- an accusation that Washington has rejected.
While the court’s ruling could have major repercussions for Pakistani domestic politics, the result of the turmoil is unlikely to cause Beijing to lose out. Pakistan’s staggering economy needs Chinese investment, and China has a strong relationship with the country’s military that provides continuity beyond the shifting political class.
Across The Supercontinent
Disinformation In Serbia: Both Russian and Chinese officials have pushed narratives about the United States funding biological weapons at labs in Ukraine, but some online conspiracy theories have also spread a narrative about U.S. labs in Serbia.
My colleagues Mila Durdevic and Miljana Miletic looked into the origins of the theories and spoke with Serbian officials who denied that any such labs exist in the country.
A Footprint: Niva Yau penned a recent study for the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) about China’s evolving security engagement with Central Asia, which has been -- and still is -- mostly centered around Chinese concerns over Xinjiang.
A Food Crisis? Russia and Ukraine account for roughly 30 percent of global wheat exports, while Russia is the world's top exporter of fertilizer. With the Ukraine war showing no signs of slowing down, there are growing worries that it could spark a global food emergency.
To find out more, I spoke with Alex Smith, a food and agriculture analyst at the U.S.-based Breakthrough Institute.
Making Lemonade: Bloomberg reports that Chinese gas buyers are preparing to buy cheap Russian fuel that will be entering the market at a deep discount.
Yes, But…: Elsewhere, Chinese companies are proceeding with extreme caution to avoid getting entangled by U.S. sanctions.
China's state-run Sinopec Group suspended talks for a major petrochemical investment and gas-marketing venture in Russia at the end of March, according to Reuters, and the South China Morning Post reported that Chinese companies are wary about being too exposed to the Russian market.
One Thing To Watch
There are also signs that Beijing’s diplomatic flurry around Afghanistan could lead to some interesting breakthroughs, including potentially recognizing the Taliban.
Russia recently accredited the first diplomat appointed by Afghanistan's Taliban government in Moscow, and Beijing has been particularly active in the country in the last few weeks, hosting a regional conference, and sending a surprise delegation to Kabul, where it signaled a desire to get back to business as usual in the country.
Beijing rarely likes to go it alone, and the Russian move could lead to more from Afghanistan’s neighbors. While there’s no time line on such matters, it’s another sign that China is inching toward recognition of the Taliban.
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,
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.