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Examining the strategic alignment between China and Russia

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

China has been drawing closer to Russia, signaling that the two are increasingly ideologically aligned, even as Russia threatens Ukraine. But as NPR's Emily Feng reports, that has put China in a tough spot.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: China's consistent stance on a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine - don't do it. Instead, various Chinese officials have repeatedly urged Russia to use diplomatic means to scale back tensions with Ukraine. Here's China's foreign minister, Wang Yi, speaking through an interpreter at the Munich Security Conference last weekend.

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WANG YI: (Through interpreter) The sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of any country should be respected and safeguarded because this is a basic norm of international relations.

FENG: Meaning, essentially, Beijing is opposed to a Russian invasion of Ukraine. China has also stressed its position is Russia should follow a complicated cease-fire agreement called the Minsk 2 so Russia and Ukraine can head off any potential for war. Here's Wang Yi again.

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WANG Y: (Through interpreter) Why can't all parties sit down together to have in-depth discussion and to come up with the roadmap and timetable for the implementation of this agreement?

FENG: The problem is Russia is frustrated by what it says is Ukraine's inability to implement those accords. So its president, Vladimir Putin, has done the exact opposite of China's suggestion. It sent military troops it calls peacekeeping forces into two separatist regions of Ukraine, and this has put China in an awkward position. Here's Jakub Jakobowski, a senior fellow at the Centre for Eastern Studies, a Polish state think tank.

JAKUB JAKOBOWSKI: There's no real trust between Russia and China.

FENG: Putin was one of the few global leaders who attended Beijing's Olympics opening ceremony this month. Right before, China and Russia published a sweeping joint statement that demonstrated a strong, though informal, partnership. But it's a friendship of convenience, and an unusually strong one at that, for two countries who have historically clashed.

JAKOBOWSKI: This constant fear of being overthrown by a democratic revolution is something that really binds them. At the end of the day, that's the deepest fundament there is for this relationship, as it's not only a, you know, state-to-state strategic alignment, but also an alliance of two authoritarian regimes that stand back-to-back.

FENG: So when Russia unilaterally dissolved Ukrainian borders and declared two eastern regions of Ukraine to be suddenly independent states, attention also shifted to China. Would it honor its pact with Russia, speak in favor of Russian troops and risk a new Cold War-type confrontation? Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin responded in a predictably neutral way, which neither criticized nor endorsed Russia's actions.

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WANG WENBIN: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: He says the legitimate security concerns of any country should be respected, but also that, quote, "purposes and principles of the U.N. charter should be jointly upheld," principles that include upholding Ukraine's territorial integrity - ostensibly, against Russian invasion, as well. China is a strong proponent of territory because it's long said the island of Taiwan is part of its country, though Taiwan would beg to differ. So China is in a bind. It finds Russia's threats useful because they distract the U.S. and its allies. But to support Russia would contradict Beijing's own key political principles. Finding a way through will be a fine line to walk.

Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF CEAS' "OMBRE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.