BEIJING (AP) — China called Thursday for talks to resolve the Ukraine crisis and avoided criticizing President Vladimir Putin’s attack while, in a step that could blunt the impact of Western sanctions, Beijing also approved imports of Russian wheat.
Chinese ties with Russia have grown stronger under President Xi Jinping, who met Putin this month in Beijing. China’s multibillion-dollar purchases of Russian gas for its energy-hungry economy have been a lifeline to Putin, who already was under Western sanctions over its 2014 seizure of Crimea from Ukraine.
China is the only major government to refrain from condemning Putin’s attack. But it tempered that by calling for restraint and respect for national sovereignty.
“We still hope that the parties concerned will not shut the door to peace and engage instead in dialogue and consultation and prevent the situation from further escalating,” said a foreign ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying.
Meanwhile, China’s Embassy in Ukraine told its citizens there to stay home and to place a Chinese flag inside or on their vehicle if they needed to travel.
Xi’s government echoes Russian frustration with what they say is unfair American dominance of global affairs and Moscow’s rejection of the eastward expansion of NATO, the U.S.-European military alliance.
Beijing has blamed Washington and its European allies for the conflict over Ukraine.
“All parties should work for peace instead of escalating the tension or hyping up the possibility of war,” Hua said. “Those parties who were busy condemning others, what have they done? Have they persuaded others?”
After their Beijing meeting, Xi and Putin issued a statement endorsing key foreign policy issues for both sides — Moscow’s opposition to a NATO expansion in former Soviet republics and China’s claim to the self-ruled island of Taiwan.
The joint statement after that meeting spoke of a partnership with “no limits,” prompting a U.S. State Department spokesman, Ned Price, to suggest the two powers had found common cause in the building of a “profoundly illiberal” new world order.
Moscow’s attack has thrust Beijing into a conflict between its partnership with Putin and its sensitivity about respect for national borders due to its anxiety about holding onto restive areas such as Tibet and Xinjiang.
Li Xin, director of the Institute of European and Asian Studies at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said the West forced Russia to take action with NATO’s expansion and the deployment of a missile defense system.
“On the one hand, we respect territorial integrity and the sovereignty of Ukraine, but on the other hand, we must consider the historical process of the situation where Russia has been pushed into a corner and forced to counterattack,” Li said.
China hasn’t endorsed Putin’s recognition of independence of eastern Ukraine’s separatist areas or his decision to send in soldiers, but Hua said Beijing “called on parties to respect others’ legitimate security concerns.”
Hua did not describe Russia’s actions as an invasion or directly refer to the movement of Russian forces into Ukraine.
At a conference in Germany last weekend, Foreign Minister Wang Yi accused the United States of “stirring up antagonism.” However, Wang said the “”sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of any country should be respected.” He added, “Ukraine is no exception.”
Western trade and financial sanctions on Russia would strengthen Beijing in their relationship by increasing China’s importance as an export market and source of investment.
On Thursday, China’s customs agency approved imports of wheat from all regions of Russia, giving Putin an alternative to Western markets that might be closed under possible sanctions.
Russia is one of the world’s biggest wheat producers but has been shut out of China until now due to concern about possible fungus and other contamination.
The two governments announced an agreement Feb. 8 for China to import Russian wheat and barley after Putin became the highest-profile foreign guest to attend the Beijing Winter Olympics.
Thursday’s announcement said Russia would “take all measures” to prevent contamination by wheat smut fungus and would suspend exports to China if it was found.
Russia has spent much of the past decade trying to expand gas exports and other trade with China and East Asian markets to offset the impact of Crimea-related sanctions.
Last month, state-owned Gazprom signed a 30-year contract to supply natural gas to China’s northeast from the Russian Far East. The two sides agreed payment would be in euros to reduce their use of U.S. dollars, the common currency in natural resource markets.
Earlier, the two governments signed another gas-supply contract in 2014 after more than a decade of negotiations. Industry analysts said Russia gave in to Chinese pressure for favorable terms due to Moscow’s need for export revenue after the Crimea sanctions.