China increasingly attacks the West and NATO. Estonia remains silent

Mikk Salu
, ajakirjanik
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the Russian-Ukrainian war, China has chosen Russia. Similarly, China is increasingly criticizing the European security architecture.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the Russian-Ukrainian war, China has chosen Russia. Similarly, China is increasingly criticizing the European security architecture. Photo: Reuters/ScanPix

China has chosen Russia’s side in Russia’s war against Ukraine. Similarly, China is ever vigorously criticizing the European security architecture.

Besides China’s “historic enemy” the USA, attacks against NATO have become more and more apparent. “Regarding Europe’s security, China has adopted Russia’s narrative about the need to rearrange it according to Russia’s interests,” says Leslie Leino, an expert on China.

China’s attitude can be best perceived when reading Chinese-language media. Leino, as well as Frank Jüris, who works at the International center for Defense and Security and specializes on China, stress the need to differentiate between China’s English-language and Chinese-language media. China’s English-language press is more roundabout, while the Chinese-language publications reveal the actual attitude: pro-Russia, anti-West, hostile towards the USA and NATO, chauvinist.

USA and NATO are viewed as having started the war

It pays to read the People’s Daily and Global Times (Google Translate provides a fairly good idea of the content). Some background information: People’s Daily is the official newspaper of the Chinese Communist Party and Global Times is the subsidiary of the same People’s Daily – using a more popular style. Bottom line: they are official gazettes of China, not some random tabloids.

And the picture cannot be misunderstood. There is no Russia-Ukraine war; there is the Russia-Ukraine conflict. There is no mass murder of Bucha, there is the Bucha incident. If you did not know better and relied only on Chinese-language information, it would be even difficult to understand who started the war, who is attacking and who is defending itself. Where are the battles, which sites are being bombed – nothing at all.

In the context of the war they discuss everything else but the war. For example, the ten most popular (war) news items in yesterday’s Global Times included three stories about the US biological laboratories and biological weapons.

The most-read item was an analysis of how the USA benefits financially from the war (or conflict, according to the Chinese terminology). In general, if anybody can be considered the aggressor in the context of Ukraine, the Chinese official media considers the USA and NATO the starters, initiators, instigators and perpetrators of the war. It is obviously an exaggeration but it almost seems that the US tanks rolled over the border first and US missiles are in the air.

Many narratives make China sound very much like Russia. The West is degrading and decaying. News from the USA reports a fire here, a shootout there, poverty in yet another place. One treatment depicts Europe as a puppet and minion of the USA. The sanctions against Russia, for example, are something the USA imposed on Europe, rather than Europe’s own initiative. On the other hand, Europe might still have hope if it could tear itself away from the USA. States do not join NATO; they are pushed there by the USA. It all sounds like the Russian propaganda: the narrative of the declining West, breaking up the unity of the Western world, blaming NATO.

China’s this view was not born with the war in Ukraine. Frank Jüris says that it is a years-long trend and China’s deliberate choice. It does not have an actual alliance with Russia, but definitely a partnership. China’s strategic interests are primarily in the Asian and Pacific region, its attention is concentrated on Taiwan and the East and South Chinese seas. China wants to annex Taiwan and therefore the northern direction or the border with Russia must be peaceful and friendly. “China views Russia as the only force which can bind the USA and the West, leaving it additional maneuvering space in the Asian and Pacific directions,” Jüris explains.

China criticizes the enlargement of NATO

On March 19, China’s Deputy Foreign Minister Le Yucheng addressed a conference at Tsinghua University. Among others, the deputy minister attacked NATO. The war in Ukraine is the fault of NATO. NATO should have been disbanded long ago. Sanctions against Russia are wrong. The eastward enlargement of NATO was wrong. Small states are merely pawns in the hands of large powers. Although Le did not specify which pawns he meant when talking about smaller NATO member nations, there could not have been many options.

Postimees asked the Embassy of China to commend on the address of the deputy foreign minister. Could the embassy explain the minister’s criticism of NATO and its eastward enlargement and who are the small nation pawns the minister referred to. The embassy has not answered within a week. We also asked the Estonian Ministry of Foreign Affairs whether they have summoned the Chinese Ambassador to discuss the deputy foreign minister’s criticism of NATO.

The ministry answered that they had not contacted the Ambassador regarding the particular speech. But Deputy Secretary General Rein Tamm had met with Chinese Ambassador Li Chao in the beginning of March and had invited China to give up the position of justifying Russia’s criminal actions.

Difficult to maintain friendly relations

Relations between Estonia and China thirty years ago could have been described by stating that China is remote and does not really concern us. But China of these days was quite different. China was concentrating on its own affairs and did not look further from its borders. China today is something else. It criticizes the USA and the West. It criticizes NATO and its enlargement. It teaches how the security of East Europe should be organized. In other words, today’s China has literally walked on Estonia’s playing field. This makes for Estonia maintaining friendly or even neutral relations with China increasingly complicated.

“I cannot understand why Estonia is silent regarding China;” Leslie Leino says accusingly. “China does not care how we (Estonia and East Europe) see things; they want to impose on us their viewpoint.”

Official Estonia has been mainly cautions regarding China not to say silent. But this cannot last endlessly. The first cracks emerged two years ago. The then minister of foreign affairs Urmas Reinsalu said that if Estonia had to choose between the USA and China, Estonia would choose the USA. When Postimees asked Reinsalu whether that choice between the USA and China is still valid, he answered: “Ten times more.”

Marko Mihkelson, Chairman of the Riigikogu foreign affairs committee, also adds that the war in Ukraine has made several matters clearer, including relations with China. “We should not pick a fight with China without any reason, but we have to explain our viewpoint more clearly, Mihkelson says, adding: “ I think that we should leave the 16+1 format.” This refers to the cooperation body of China and East European countries, which was formed in 2012. Chinese affairs expert Frank Jüris also points out that the 16+1 cooperation format has not brought the promised economic benefits to Estonia, while the influence of China has increased. But who wants to admit that their ten years’ work has been in vain – instead they keep praising the opportunities of the Chinese market and suppressing any criticism.

Friendship with Russia, trade with the West

China has taken Russia’s side politically. But in practice, it would be much more complicated for China to turn against the West and help Russia directly. China’s own economic success is very closely tied to trade with the West. The share of Russia is immeasurably smaller.

China’s trading partners

1. USA, 583 billion

2. European Union, 573 billion

3. Japan, 314 billion

12. Russia, 84 billion