WASHINGTON – Frustrated with the United States, Ukraine concludes agreements with a rival superpower, calling on China to build infrastructure while withholding criticism of Beijing’s human rights record.
Ukraine last month touted agreements with China for the construction of airports, roads and railways in the eastern European country and expressed gratitude for the deliveries of China-made Covid-19 vaccines.
Just days before the cooperation agreements were concluded, Kiev chose to remain silent on alleged human rights violations by China.
At the UN Human Rights Council, Ukraine withdrew its signature on a joint statement calling on China to allow independent observers in the Xinjiang region to investigate reports of persecution of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.
The Foreign Ministry has yet to provide a rationale for the decision and has not responded to a request for comment.
Andriy Sharaskin, a member of the Ukrainian parliament’s foreign policy committee, said China had asked Ukraine to withdraw its signature from the joint statement and made it clear that promised deliveries of Covid-19 vaccines would be cut.
“When Ukraine signed the declaration, China started asking [Ukraine] to remove it. And at the same time, they blocked the shipment of the vaccines we have already paid for, “Sharaskin told NBC News, saying officials from the Foreign Office informed him at the time.
Ukraine has struggled to ensure an adequate supply of vaccines and to get vaccinated, as its vaccination rate is lower than that of most countries in central and eastern Europe.
The Associated Press, citing anonymous sources, first reported that China was threatening to cancel vaccine shipments if Ukraine did not withdraw its support for the joint letter led by Canada.
The Chinese Embassy in Ukraine has publicly denied pressuring Ukraine over the joint statement. The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.
In Ukraine’s parliament this month, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba questioned whether the government had turned back on the West. He said Ukraine remains committed to “Euro-Atlantic integration” and opposes human rights violations. He did not say why Kiev held its fire on China and the Uyghurs.
“Regarding your question, I can say that we are currently consulting our Western partners and China on this issue. As soon as the process is completed, we will explain our position,” he said.
But Oleksiy Arestovych, adviser to the Ukrainian president’s office, subsequently issued a blunt warning to the United States and its allies.
“My main message would be this: If the West continues to give up Ukraine’s interests for friendship with Russia, Ukraine could turn to the East,” Arestovych said on July 18.
Ukraine has been in conflict with Russia, its much more powerful neighbor, since 2014, when Moscow invaded and annexed the country’s Crimean region. Pro-Russian separatists also control parts of eastern Ukraine, with sporadic clashes continuing along the front line.
Despite Russian opposition, the Ukrainian government is committed to aligning the country with the European Union and NATO, not Moscow. But Ukraine has grown impatient with its Western allies and believes it needs more support in an attempt to counter Russia.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has made no secret of his bitter disappointment with the Biden administration over the way it has handled planned gas pipeline in Europe, accusing the White House of failing to take decisive action to stop the project, which Kiev says will give Moscow leverage over European governments.
Zelenskyy has also been asking for a face-to-face meeting with Biden for months, and it wasn’t until last week that the White House announced Biden would welcome him for a visit to the United States on August 30.
Amid friction with Washington, Ukraine this month announced plans to build infrastructure with China, and Zelenskyy met for the first time with Chinese President Xi Jinping. They discussed “the full realization of the potential of bilateral cooperation, especially in the areas of trade and major infrastructure projects,” according to a statement from the Ukrainian presidency.
Zelenskyy and Xi noted that China is Ukraine’s largest trading partner and agreed to create a visa-free travel regime between the two countries, the statement said.
In its diplomacy with China, Zelenskyy’s government is deliberately sending a signal to Washington that Ukraine’s partnership and cooperation cannot be taken for granted, a source close to the president’s office said.
The gist of the government’s approach comes down to, “If you don’t fully support us, we’ll go to China,” the source said.
But Ukraine’s bet comes with risks and could easily backfire, the source said. “Ukraine must preserve its privileged relations with its long-standing partners, not seek new ones,” said the source.
China has for some time viewed Ukraine as one of many potential centers for expanding its economic reach into Eastern Europe and beyond as part of its global Belt and Road initiative, they said. former US officials and experts said. A Chinese shipping company resumed container operations at the Greek port of Piraeus more than a decade ago, and Chinese companies have made major investments in Serbia and Hungary worth billions of dollars, including a railway project across the Balkans. Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić kissed the Chinese flag when a plane loaded with medical supplies arrived from Beijing last year, and his government was the first in Europe to order vaccines made in China.
China, which has invested heavily in transforming its military and keen to reduce its dependence on Russian arms and equipment, has also taken a keen interest in Ukraine’s defense industry.
“If I were Chinese and I sought to diversify my sources of military capabilities (…) member of the think tank Center for a New American Security.
China’s infrastructure projects around the world often come at a price, both financially and politically. Most of the projects are financed by loans, which many poor countries are unable to repay, allowing Beijing to take over the sites.
China also often obtains political favors from countries in exchange for trade or infrastructure deals, former officials and experts said.
Brad Adams, executive director of the Asia division of Human Rights Watch, said China used to force governments to refrain from criticizing Beijing’s human rights record. Sometimes the pressure comes in the form of threats, and sometimes China offers economic benefits if a country complies with Beijing’s demands, Adams said.
China stymied Ukraine when it linked life-saving vaccines to avoiding criticism of Beijing’s human rights record, said Sharaskin of the parliament’s foreign policy committee Ukrainian.
“This situation has been cleverly used by the Chinese to move Ukraine away from the West and bring it closer to China. It is part of the information war. It is the Chinese expansionist policy,” he said. he declares.
Still, it would be wrong to say that Ukraine is abandoning the West, Sharaskin said.
Kiev this year rejected a Chinese proposal to buy a Ukrainian aerospace company, Motor Sich, which manufactures engines for helicopters and airplanes. U.S. officials have urged Ukraine to reject the deal, and Kiev has so far chosen not to cross that potential red line after initially welcoming the offer. Authorities in Kiev imposed sanctions in January against Skyrizon, the Chinese company that was trying to get a controlling stake in Motor Sich.
“It was a political decision that angered the Chinese side. It was a painful slap on the part of officials in Kiev,” said Sergiy Gerasymchuk of the Reflection Group on Strategic and Security Studies in Ukraine.
A State Department spokesperson said the United States is concerned about China’s “predatory business practices” and that “Chinese state-owned and controlled companies are not interested in the industry. Ukrainian defense to create business opportunities or job growth in Ukraine ”.
“They are using these acquisitions to gain control of strategic chains and gain access to foreign technology in support of their strategic and military-industrial goals, which are contrary to the national security interests of the United States and those of our allies and partners, ”the spokesperson said.
As for China’s attempt to tie vaccines to favorable treatment by Ukraine, the Biden administration said it was aware of reports of Beijing’s pressure tactics.
“We condemn reports that the PRC uses vaccines as a tool of coercion around the world, including in Ukraine,” the State Department spokesman said, referring to China by the initials of its official name , People’s Republic of China.
“Life-saving vaccines should never be used as a tool of political pressure. We strongly condemn any effort to tie the supply of vaccines to political or economic conditions or favors. In contrast, the United States is proud to have delivered 2 million doses of Moderna vaccine to Ukraine, without any conditions, “added the spokesperson.
Evelyn Farkas, who served as U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia from 2012 to 2015, said Ukraine was not naive about China, despite his dissatisfaction with Washington over Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
“I don’t think they want to increase the tension that currently exists at official levels. It doesn’t really make sense for Ukraine. In the long term, medium and short term, they know that their interests lie in in the United States, ”Farkas said.
Oleg Nikolenko, spokesperson for Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry, said Ukraine remains committed to a transatlantic future.
He added: “However, this does not mean that we will artificially maintain the progress of our bilateral relations with certain countries or regions. Ukraine’s national interest will always be our top priority, no matter which country we are interested in. . “