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Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin talk during their meeting in Beijing, on Feb. 4.Alexei Druzhinin/The Associated Press

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this week shocked the world, even after months of sabre-rattling by Moscow, but China in particular seems to have been wrong-footed by the unprovoked attack.

As Russian missiles began striking Ukrainian positions early Thursday morning, China’s representative to the United Nations was in the middle of telling the Security Council that “the door to a peaceful solution to the Ukraine issue is not fully shut, nor should it be shut.”

After Beijing backed Russia’s calls for an end to NATO’s eastward expansion following a summit between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping in early February, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said this week that “the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries should be respected and safeguarded … and that applies equally to Ukraine.” This was seen by some as a possible rebuke to Moscow, an indication that Beijing had not given its full-throated approval for an invasion. As late as Wednesday, Chinese analysts were arguing that the troop buildups on Russia’s border with Ukraine were just a bluff, while top officials publicly mocked U.S. warnings of an impending war.

Since the invasion began, Beijing has swung behind Russia, claiming Washington and NATO had provoked Mr. Putin’s invasion and reiterating Russian justifications for the war.

Russia-Ukraine war live updates: Russian troops push in to Kyiv as war wages throughout Ukraine

Mr. Xi spoke with Mr. Putin on the phone Friday.

According to a readout from broadcaster CCTV, Mr. Xi “once again expressed his gratitude to Putin for coming to China to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics.”

“Putin introduced the historical latitude and longitude of the Ukraine issue and the situation and position of Russia’s special military operations in the eastern part of Ukraine,” CCTV reported. “He said that the United States and NATO have long ignored Russia’s reasonable security concerns, repeatedly reneged on their commitments, and continued to advance military deployment eastward, challenging Russia’s strategic bottom line.”

It added that Mr. Putin said Russia was “willing to conduct high-level negotiations with Ukraine.”

In response, Mr. Xi said “the situation in eastern Ukraine has undergone rapid changes, which has drawn great attention from the international community.”

He then told Mr. Putin that China supports Russia’s efforts to “resolve the Ukraine crisis via dialogue.”

This was in keeping with other Chinese comments since Russian forces crossed the border. During a combative, angry news conference this week, Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying refused to use the term “invasion” to describe Russia’s actions, instead preferring Moscow’s terminology: “a special military operation.” She blamed the U.S. for “increasing tensions and hyping up war,” as well as “fanning up flames and then shifting the blame onto others.”

“As the culprit, the person who started the fire should think about how to put out the fire as soon as possible,” Ms. Hua said.

While ostensibly for foreign consumption, her comments were carried prominently in the Friday edition of the People’s Daily, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party, from which other Chinese media take their lead on sensitive issues.

Similarly, in a call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Thursday, Mr. Wang said that while China “always respects all countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity … we also see a complex and unique historical context on the Ukraine issue and understand Russia’s legitimate concerns on security issues.”

This public support belies Beijing’s many competing and contradictory goals regarding this crisis, said Xiaoyu Pu, an expert on Chinese foreign policy at the University of Nevada, Reno, “including strategic co-operation with Russia, holding the principle of non-intervention and sovereignty and avoiding economic damage caused by Western sanctions.”

“China supports Russia’s opposition on NATO expansion, but China does not support Russia’s military actions,” he said.

Indeed, on paper, China should be fiercely opposed to the invasion of Ukraine, which was preceded by Russia’s formal recognition of two self-declared “people’s republics” in Ukraine’s Donbas region. Moscow had for years supported the separatists in those areas with guns, money and, allegedly, even military personnel. Beijing’s foreign policy is adamantly non-interventionist, and with several separatist-leaning regions of its own, China is understandably wary of actions supporting breakaway republics around the world. For instance, Beijing does not recognize Kosovo, which declared independence from Serbia in 2008 with NATO support, nor Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

Chinese history also presents reasons to be wary. Japan’s establishment of the puppet state of Manchukuo in northeastern China in 1932 was a precursor to an invasion of the whole country five years later. Since 1949, when the defeated Kuomintang government fled to Taiwan after the Chinese Civil War, Beijing has threatened to invade if the island ever formally declares independence or if other countries recognize the de facto state as such.

But James Palmer, a long-time China watcher and former editor at a state-run newspaper, points out that the Chinese Communist Party “is quite happy being hypocritical.” China’s policy “about its own territory and history is ridden with obvious self-contradictions, because that’s the nature of authoritarian nationalism,” he wrote on Twitter. “It’s not a problem for them, because of that authoritarian part.”

Ultimately, China’s solidarity with Russia against what it sees as Western aggression may hold more weight than any concerns about Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty or the setting of awkward precedents. On Thursday Ms. Hua said that “today, China still faces a realistic threat from the U.S. flanked by its several allies as they wantonly and grossly meddle in China’s domestic affairs and undermine China’s sovereignty and security on issues including Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan.”

If China is choosing to stand by Russia, it can help in two ways. Firstly, by providing a degree of relief from Western economic pressure, with Beijing this week reaffirming its opposition to “all illegal unilateral sanctions.” After Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, Beijing ramped up economic engagement with Russia, and a similar situation could play out this time; an agreement signed by Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin this month contained new deals for oil and gas.

The second way China could be of value is if Moscow seeks to force Kyiv – or a newly appointed puppet government – to the negotiating table to retroactively endorse the Russian invasion or annexation of the separatist regions in Ukraine’s east. Beijing’s support for talks, which it has stated repeatedly throughout this crisis, could counterbalance Western efforts to avoid negotiations at the barrel of a gun and provide some international legitimacy for such a push.

There may also be advantages for China. Li Haidong, a professor at the Institute of International Relations of China Foreign Affairs University, told state media that “at least in the next few years, the U.S. will have to focus on Europe, and the ‘Indo-Pacific strategy’ will be reduced to an empty slogan.”

Hawks in the West have argued that failing to push back against Russian aggression in Europe could embolden Beijing to seize Taiwan, a long-time goal. Chinese officials dismissed any such comparison this week – partly because it would acknowledge that Taiwan is akin to Ukraine, an independent country – but similar arguments have also been made by commentators within China.

Taipei on Wednesday issued an order to “strengthen the response and preparation of military dynamics in the Taiwan Strait to ensure national security,” but despite repeated aerial sorties around the island in the past year and aggressive military exercises, there is no indication that the People’s Liberation Army is gearing up for an invasion, nor any certainty that such an action would be successful.

“It’s not a good time for China to do this,” said Jakub Jakobowski, a senior China fellow at the Warsaw-based Centre for Eastern Studies. The military is not ready, and he pointed to an forthcoming Communist Party summit at which Mr. Xi is expected to begin an unprecedented third term – not a moment to risk war with the U.S.

“It will not be the Russians who decide on when to invade Taiwan,” Mr. Jakobowski said.

However, this has not stopped a marked increase in threats directed at the island. Global Times, a nationalist state-run newspaper, said in an editorial Friday that the situation in Ukraine will surely “touch a raw nerve” in Taipei. “The performance of the U.S. after the Ukraine crisis could serve as a warning to ‘Taiwan independence’ secessionist forces: Washington is not reliable,” the paper said, adding that those who “attempt to gain a sense of security by riding the U.S.’s coattails and reinforcing Taiwan’s military forces” should “get ready for a tragic end.”

But while nationalists in China may hope to see a model for unification with Taiwan in the situation in Ukraine, Russia’s experience there may provide the opposite lesson, according to Jude Blanchette, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

An occupation of Ukraine could become an Iraq-like quagmire for Moscow, Mr. Blanchette told an audience in Washington on Wednesday. “If there’s a prolonged, protracted war, with thousands of body bags heading home to Russia, Xi Jinping would do well to reflect on what a similar invasion and occupation in Taiwan might mean for China.”

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