China–Ukraine relations and how the war will shape its future

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After Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Ukraine and China built formal diplomatic relations in 1992, and declared a strategic partnership in 2011.

China has an embassy in Kyiv and a Consulate-General in Odessa. Ukraine has an embassy in Beijing and a Consulate-General in Shanghai. According to the Chinese embassy in Ukraine, over 6,000 Chinese citizens work or study in Ukraine. 50,000 to 100,000 Ukrainian citizens live in China.

The two countries have built a strong trade ties, specifically since 2008. China has become Ukraine’s largest trading partner since 2019, with a trade turnover of 15.4 billion US dollar in 2020, of which Ukraine exports goods worth 7.1 billion US dollar. The total trade turnover increased from 2% of Ukraine’s GDP in 2001 to 11% in 2020.

From 2016 to 2021 China’s investment in Ukraine rose from $50 million to $260 million. Mostly Chinese state-owned companies invest in Ukrainian state-owned companies. Chinese companies most primarily work with Ukrainian ones in the energy sector and agriculture.

The two countries has cooperated closely in term of the military-technical domain and in the space industry, with some famous bilateral projects, such as the Chinese purchase of the Ukrainian aircraft-carrier Varyag in 1998, which later became China’s first aircraft carrier Liaoning in 2012. By 2018 Ukraine had replaced the United States as the largest exporter of corn to China, and has begun supplying China with modern jet engines for military craft.

China’s stance on Russian invasion of Ukraine

The US officials claim they warned China of the war with evidence and urged China to stop the war during the three months prior to the war, which was, however, disbelieved by their Chinese counterparts.  When asked whether she would call the war a Russian invasion, China’s assistant foreign minister, Hua Chunying, also refused to give a clear yes or no answer and instead criticised the West for deteriorating the situation, blaming the US to be “the culprit of current tensions surrounding Ukraine”. The official media also avoided referring to the conflicts as an invasion.

In a unilateral governmental statement in 1994, China provided Ukraine with nuclear security guarantee, where China states its inclination to peaceful settlement of differences and disputes by way of fair consultations.

On 19 March, Ukraine asked China to join Western countries in condemning “Russian brutality,” after the US warned China of dire consequences if it aids Moscow’s invasion of the country with material support. Beijing’s failure to criticise Russia worsens local attitudes towards the stranded Chinese citizens, although Beijing also signals willingness to mediate in the war.

China’s position in this round of Russia v the west is under particularly heavy scrutiny following Xi Jinping’s pledge with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on 4 February that there would be “no ‘forbidden’ areas of cooperation” in their bilateral relationship.

In the last few days, as the crisis in Ukraine dominated international headlines, Chinese analysts have debated the country’s policy choice. While hardliners advocate a pro-Russia foreign policy, others think Beijing should seize on this crisis to protect ties with Washington.

By Annie Tang

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