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China In Eurasia Briefing: Ukraine Bends To Chinese ‘Vaccine Diplomacy’

Welcome back to the China In Eurasia briefing, an RFE/RL newsletter tracking China’s resurgent influence from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.

I’m RFE/RL correspondent Reid Standish and here’s what I’m following right now.

Ukraine Bends To Chinese ‘Vaccine Diplomacy’

Ukraine bowed to Chinese pressure to take its name off an international statement about human rights abuses in China’s western Xinjiang region after Beijing threatened to limit trade and withhold access to COVID-19 vaccines, my colleague Yevhen Solonyna from RFE/RL’s Ukrainian Service and I reported.

Finding Perspective: The AP reported in late June, citing anonymous Western diplomatic sources, that China allegedly threatened to block a planned shipment of at least 500,000 Chinese-made vaccines to Ukraine unless Kyiv dropped its support from the call for greater international scrutiny into Xinjiang, where Beijing is accused of running an internment camp system for Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.

We spoke to three Ukrainian lawmakers and a senior Ukrainian official familiar with the episode who confirmed that this is, indeed, what happened and also provided RFE/RL with new details about the incident.

Among those new details, the senior Ukrainian official told us that China’s Foreign Ministry blocked export documents for the Sinovac shots and that Chinese officials “hinted at the reason” for the vaccines being withheld. As soon as Kyiv withdrew its signature from the statement, he said, the documents were processed and Ukraine received its expected batch of vaccines.

But the pressure wasn’t limited to vaccines.

Andriy Sharaskin, a Ukrainian lawmaker from the opposition Voice party who sits on parliament’s Foreign Policy and Interparliamentary Cooperation Committee, told us Beijing also leaned on Kyiv by threatening to limit trade and offered more investment in Ukrainian infrastructure in exchange for Ukraine removing its signature.

On June 30, shortly after the episode, China and Ukraine announced an infrastructure agreement, with Beijing promising to increase investment and attract more Chinese companies into the country.

Why It Matters: China has denied that it engages in so-called “vaccine diplomacy,” where countries leverage the supply of shots to exercise diplomatic pressure and gain political concessions, but this appears to show otherwise.

The incident is also an interesting window into foreign policy discussions under way in Kyiv.

In general, the United States and the European Union are close partners for Ukraine and the country wants to further integrate with the West. Kyiv, however, has found itself frustrated with a string of Western policy decisions and is looking for new ways to draw investment into the country, which has left the Ukrainian government increasingly eyeing China.

As Solomiya Bobrovska, an opposition Ukrainian lawmaker who serves as secretary for parliament’s foreign policy committee, told us about the decision to bend to Chinese pressure:

“Ukrainian leaders explained this [position] to us by saying that the collective West has a somewhat cold attitude towards Ukraine, and therefore it’s necessary to pursue the opportunities that are given from other sides,” Bobrovska said.

Read More

● Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba recently authored an article for Foreign Affairs titled Ukraine Is Part of the West, in which he calls for leaders to offer Kyiv a road map for EU and NATO membership.

● Part of Kyiv’s frustration is a recent U.S.-German deal to allow Nord Stream 2, a Russian gas pipeline that will bypass Ukraine. Amy Mackinnon, Robbie Gramer, and Jack Detsch have a good piece on the pipeline’s tumultuous history for Foreign Policy.

Expert Corner: Chinese Tech Spreads Across Eurasia

Readers asked: “How quickly is Chinese tech being adopted across Eurasia and what are its implications?”

To find out more, I asked Bradley Jardine, a fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kissinger Institute on China and the United States.

“Chinese tech is being rapidly adopted across Eurasia and includes everything from [telecommunications] and traffic cameras to facial-recognition payment systems. One overlooked implication of enormous consequence is that this technology may facilitate China’s growing use of transnational repression due to the lack of regulations on data privacy.

“In 2019, a Uyghur man was stopped at mainland China’s border with Hong Kong and interrogated for three days because someone on his WeChat contact list had ‘checked in’ at Mecca, a place of pilgrimage for Muslims. In closely monitored Central Asia, with its large Uyghur diaspora, the proliferation of Chinese technology will result in growing surveillance and harassment of this vulnerable community.”

Do you have a question about China’s growing footprint in Eurasia? Send it to me at StandishR@rferl.org or reply directly to this e-mail and I’ll get it answered by leading experts and policymakers.

Three More Stories From Eurasia

1. Another Attack On Chinese Workers In Pakistan

Two weeks after an explosion on a bus carrying Chinese and Pakistani personnel in northwest Pakistan, gunmen opened fire on two Chinese workers in Karachi on July 28, RFE/RL’s Radio Mashaal reported.

What Happened: The string of incidents has left Beijing reevaluating how best to protect its citizens and interests in the country, which has become strategically important as the centerpiece of its multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative, as I reported here.

The attacks come as the region braces itself for a worsening security situation in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of American troops, which could spill over into neighboring countries like Pakistan.

The July 14 bus explosion that killed 13 people, including nine Chinese workers, was the deadliest attack ever on Chinese citizens abroad. The workers suffered serious injuries from the shooting, but both are still alive.

The authorities are still investigating both attacks — Pakistani law enforcement announced that they had arrested two suspects in connection with the explosion — but the motive behind the attacks is not immediately clear, and no group has claimed responsibility for either incident.

Looking Ahead: While Chinese workers and diplomats have been targeted before in Pakistan, the scope and frequency of the attacks is growing.

This has left Beijing increasingly focused on how to shore up its security in the region. Chinese officials have had several meetings about this with their Pakistani counterparts, particularly the military and intelligence services, and the attacks have also led to speculation that Beijing could push to provide its own security, as it does in many other countries.

But as Ayesha Siddiqa, a research associate at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, explained to me, Islamabad is strongly against such a shift:

“There will be more pressure on Pakistan to protect the Chinese and maybe let the Chinese take care of their own security,” she said. “But Pakistan absolutely does not want this. They do not want Chinese boots on the ground.”

2. Rising To Where?

China’s status in the world has risen dramatically in recent years and Beijing’s clout continues to grow. A few recent developments illustrate this rise in interesting — and at times contradictory — ways.

The Breakdown: The Lowly Institute recently published a study looking at the evolution of Chinese diplomacy and compared visits by foreign leaders to China versus to the United States, showing a major increase in face-to-face visits to Beijing.

As the report noted: “In 2019, the year before COVID-19 halted most travel, 79 foreign leaders visited China, while only 27 called on the United States. More world leaders have visited China than the United States in every year since 2013, a sharp turnaround from the American dominance of the early post-Cold War era.”

On the flip side, The Economist had an interesting piece looking at the increase in Chinese asylum seekers, which saw a massive uptick since 2012 when President Xi Jinping took power and has coincided with more repressive policies in Xinjiang and Hong Kong.

Since Xi took the helm, “613,000 Chinese nationals have applied for asylum in another country. About 70 percent of them sought asylum in America in 2020.”

Finally, Qin Gang, one of the pioneers of China’s brash and confrontational “Wolf Warrior diplomacy,” — that is, the combative tone taken by the country’s diplomats online — is headed to Washington as Beijing’s new ambassador. It will be an interesting test to see what sort of tone Qin adopts as he navigates a fraught U.S.-China relationship.

This all paints a complex picture moving forward. China’s global status is elevated, but the country is becoming more repressive at home. Meanwhile, its new international stature is just beginning to face its first tests abroad.

3. An Island Divided

Current Time has produced a documentary looking at Bolshoi Ussuriysky Island, an outpost on the Amur River in Russia’s Far East that was disputed by Beijing and Moscow for decades but which has now been divided almost equally between the two countries. You can watch part of the video here.

Compare And Contrast: The island, known as Heixiazi in Chinese, is an interesting case study in Sino-Russian relations.

Not only does it illustrate the disconnect between top leaders looking to forge a warmer relationship and the long-standing suspicions from people on the ground, it also shows the disparity between local governments.

Since the formal division in 2008, Russian developers have put forward plans to make the island an important gateway for trade and travel with China, but on the Russian side most people live in dilapidated homes with minimal infrastructure and lack access to many important government services.

The full documentary can be viewed here.

Across The Supercontinent

The Protester: Pickets outside the Chinese Consulate in Almaty have continued for five months as people search for their relatives in China that they believe have been caught up in Beijing’s internment camp system in Xinjiang.

My colleague Nurtay Lakhanuly from RFE/RL’s Kazakh Service profiles Qalida Akytkhan, a 67-year-old pensioner who has become a mainstay of the demonstrations as she tries to find her family members in China.

The Review: Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, said that the bloc will publish a report after the summer reviewing its relationship with China. You can read the rest of Borrell’s interview in Spain’s El Pais newspaper here.

Reinforcements: Kyrgyzstan received 1.25 million doses of another Chinese vaccine, Sinopharm, RFE/RL’s Kyrgyz Service reported. To date, the country has bought 2.35 million shots from its neighbor to the east.

From Russia With…: Officials from Nanjing, the Chinese city that is at the heart of a current COVID outbreak in the country, have said that they believe the source of the infection is an Air China passenger flight that arrived from Moscow.

One Thing To Watch

Many observers thought that both Beijing and the incoming Biden administration would look to cool things down after four years of testy relations under former U.S. President Donald Trump, but this doesn’t look to be the case.

Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Wendy Sherman wrapped up a high-level visit to China on July 26 during which she met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng. It was reportedly a tense meeting and a harbinger of things to come. Any repair in relations seems unlikely and the best each side can hope for is to prevent things from deteriorating further.

As Sherman told NPR following her meeting in China: “I think we have to insist that this is a very complex relationship that involves competition, cooperation, and times where it’s adversarial and we’re going to challenge what China does.”

That’s all from me for now. Don’t forget to send me any questions, comments, or tips that you might have.

Until next time,

Reid Standish

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