TIME China

China’s Response to the MH17 Tragedy? Condemn the West

Experts inspect the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines plane
Search and rescue specialists inspect the crash area of Malaysia Airlines flight 17, carrying nearly 300 people from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it was downed close to Russia's border with Ukraine on July 17, near Grabovo. Anadolu Agency—Getty Images

Despite memories of decades of Cold War frostiness, Beijing is now quite chummy with Moscow

On July 18, shortly after Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crashed over eastern Ukraine, extinguishing 298 lives, China’s Xinhua state news agency cautioned against making snap judgments. The U.S. and other Western nations had begun to finger pro-Russian rebels in Ukraine for shooting down the Boeing 777 passenger plane, but Xinhua dismissed such accusations as “rash” and took the opportunity to swipe at Western democracies for their condemnation of Russia’s earlier military intervention in Ukraine:

The one-sided accusation is not surprising in light of their long-time stance on the crisis in eastern Ukraine, and their attitude towards Russia’s absorption of Crimea in March. But without convincing evidence, jumping to a conclusion will only heighten regional tension and is not conducive to finding out the truth.

Russian President Vladimir Putin late Thursday said it is Ukraine that bears the responsibility as the tragedy occurred over its territory. The tragedy, Putin said, could have been avoided should Ukraine’s eastern regions be in peace.

On July 21, the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, ran a piece still cautioning that “no proof has been found so far to clarify the cause or identify the perpetrator.” Nowhere did the story mention the likelihood that pro-Russian rebels had trained a missile on MH17 as it flew from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

The same day, the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party-linked daily that can be counted on for nationalist commentary, did at least mention such a possibility — if only to decry Western governments’ speculation that Russia may have aided and abetted the rebels’ cause:

The Western rush to judge Russia is not based on evidence or logic. Russia had no motive to bring down MH17; doing so would only narrow its political and moral space to operate in the Ukrainian crisis. The tragedy has no political benefit for Ukrainian rebel forces, either. Russia has been back-footed, forced into a passive stance by Western reaction. It is yet another example of the power of Western opinion as a political tool.

The crisis in Ukraine had already put China in a difficult position. Despite memories of decades of Cold War frostiness, Beijing has boosted its ties with Moscow. The two neighbors share an antipathy toward Western democratic values and a mutual interest in natural resources. The first foreign trip Xi Jinping made as President was to Russia in March 2013.

Yet China also proclaims that one of its foreign-policy bedrocks is staying out of other nations’ internal affairs. Russia’s invasion of Crimea — which Xinhua delicately termed an “absorption” — cannot be considered as anything but a gross interference in Ukraine’s internal affairs. Beijing is struggling with separatist sentiment at home, most notably among Tibetan and Uighur populations in China’s far west. How can Chinese foreign-policy makers support an ethnic rebel movement over a national government, even if those separatists do have Russia’s tacit blessing?

China may soon have to reconcile this foreign-policy quandary. “It will bring about a severe challenge to China’s general strategy and diplomacy if America and Europe propose sanctions against Russia and demand China should join with them,” wrote Chinese security analyst Gao Feng in a widely disseminated blog post. “For China, the issue is which side it should choose. Without doubt, an ambiguous stance [by Beijing] will face criticism and moral pressure.”

There were no mainland Chinese nationals on MH17. By contrast, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, which vanished in March en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, was filled with Chinese passengers. As the Malaysian investigation into that plane’s disappearance foundered, Chinese authorities allowed MH370 families to stage protests in Beijing — a rarity in a nation allergic to public displays of dissent.

This time around, official Chinese sentiment has steered clear of blaming Malaysia for the Ukraine disaster. Instead, West-bashing has predominated. “The West has successfully put itself in a position to dictate ‘political correctness’ in international discourse,” said the Global Times editorial on MH17 on Monday. “Those unwilling to work with Western interests will often find themselves in a tough position.” Criticism of the West even extended beyond the tragedy of MH17. On July 21, Xinhua publicized a new campaign of “intense ideological education for officials to strengthen their faith in communism and curb corruption.” First on cadres’ to-do lists? Keeping a “firm belief in Marxism to avoid being lost in the clamor for western democracy.”

With reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing

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