JO THE FERVENT revolutionaries who ruled China in 1968, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia was a monstrous crime, but not a surprise. Watching from Beijing, Chairman Mao Zedong and his aides saw vindication of a long-held suspicion: that the once-proud Soviet Union was now ruled by “socialist imperialists,” on equal footing with the capitalists. in charge of America, the original imperialism. superpower. Indeed, Mao’s deputy, Zhou Enlai, accused the Soviet leadership of active collusion with America, involving a scheme to divide the world into two spheres of influence, one directed from Moscow and the other from Washington. The invasion was proof of that pact, Zhou charged: Soviet bosses dared to send tanks roaring through the cobbled streets of Prague, because they knew America would not intervene.
Chinese outrage signaled no sympathy for the liberal Prague Spring reforms that sparked the invasion, let alone Alexander Dubcek, the local party leader arrested and sent to Moscow. Instead, Maoist officials portrayed the invasion as a revolutionary struggle, pitting the heroic masses of Czechoslovakia against the “fascist” Soviet occupiers. They were later outraged when communist diplomacy jargon was used to justify the invasion. Returning their haughty phrases to the Soviet leaders, the People’s Daily Beijing newspaper demanded to know: “You have sent hundreds of thousands of troops to occupy all of Czechoslovakia. What “territorial integrity” are we talking about?
Half a century after these Mao-era feuds, which eventually escalated into a brief Sino-Soviet border war, the world order is in upheaval. China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, is the avowed best friend and ideological soul mate of Russian President Vladimir Putin. As Mr. Putin ordered an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine on February 24, he made no secret of his war aims. He wants to transform this neighboring country of 44 million inhabitants into a neutral and demilitarized satellite. In the direct words of German Chancellor Olaf Scholz: “Putin wants to create a Russian empire”.
Mr. Xi and his government maintain a posture of pseudo-neutrality towards the conflict in Ukraine, but no one doubts China’s pro-Russian leanings. China’s approach combines pious calls for peace with tireless recycling of Russian arguments for invasion, including the claim that America is to blame for hosting ex-Soviet satellites in the NATO alliance after the end of the cold war. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called on Western governments to respond to Russia’s ‘legitimate security demands’ and agree to a dialogue that puts Russia on an equal footing with the 27-member European Union . This time, it is the turn of Chinese diplomats to utter empty phrases about their respect for the “sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries” even as their Russian friends prepare to dismember Ukraine, echoing to Soviet propaganda as tanks rumbled through Prague.
Chinese officials speak of Russia’s legitimate desire to see “a balanced, effective and sustainable European security mechanism”. This builds on a joint statement agreed by Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin hours before the opening of the Winter Olympics in Beijing on February 4, in which China backed Russian proposals for “legally binding in the long term in Europe”. In plain language, Russia demands a veto over European security arrangements and alliances. A Chinese scholar in Beijing explains what his government thinks: that European security policies should neither target Russia nor ignore Russia’s wishes, and should be decided by Europeans alone, that is, the America should go.
Other governments understand what is at stake. On February 28, Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan explained why her country is ready to impose sanctions on Russia, when it traditionally seeks friendly relations. with all the great powers. “It’s an existential problem for us. Ukraine is much smaller than Russia, but it’s much bigger than Singapore,” he told parliament, adding that “a world order based on “the stronger the law”…would be profoundly harmful to the security and survival of small states”.
The Chinese dream of an American retirement
A world ruled by big countries is attracting many Chinese nationalists, who have filled social media with praise for Mr Putin, even as censors suppress posts critical of Russia. The idea that NATO is a collective defense pact that expanded in response to demand from former communist bloc countries fearing Russian intimidation is almost unknown in China. Instead, the Atlantic alliance is seen as a tool of US aggression that is “perpetually in search of an enemy,” to quote a Chinese essay on Ukraine widely shared in recent days. NATO is best known as the vehicle used by America and its allies to intervene in the civil wars in Yugoslavia in the name of preventing ethnic cleansing: a mission called illegal Chinese interference. Then NATO bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo War in May 1999, an event that the Chinese government refuses to accept was an accident. The date of the bombing of the embassy is remembered by the name of a major Chinese weapons program, “Project 995”. On the day Russia invaded Ukraine, China’s Deputy Foreign Minister Hua Chunying blamed the West for a long history of trampling on Chinese sovereignty, telling reporters that “NATO still owes the Chinese people a debt of blood.”
How much Mr. Xi was aware of Mr. Putin’s plans may never be known. Chinese diplomats seemed surprised by the Russian invasion. They were “visibly squirming” when approached by their Western counterparts in Beijing and at the United Nations in New York as the tanks rolled into Ukraine. The war could yet escalate into violence so bloody that it makes China’s pro-Russian stance politically costly. But in Beijing, cynical voices say China could benefit from Mr. Putin’s aggression, if it forces America to pay more attention to Europe and less to the Indo-Pacific. China wants a sphere of influence in Asia in which its power is not challenged by America. As a result, he made peace with Russian imperialism. ■
Our recent coverage of the Ukraine crisis can be found here
Read more from Chaguan, our columnist on China:
The story of a trafficked bride shocks China (February 26)
China’s “zero-covid” policy also serves as loyalty test (February 19)
The good and bad of China on the Olympic program (12 February)
This article appeared in the China section of the print edition under the headline “China is learning to love imperialism”