China's envoy to the United Nations on Monday called for "all parties" to exercise restraint and avoid "fueling tensions" in Ukraine, but stopped short of condemning the Kremlin's recognition of independence for two pro-Moscow regions in the east of the country.
Beijing is navigating a complex position as the crisis in Ukraine intensifies, attempting to balance deepening ties with Moscow with its practiced foreign policy of staunchly defending state sovereignty.
In a brief statement at an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council Monday night, China's UN Ambassador Zhang Jun said Beijing welcomed and encouraged every effort for a diplomatic solution, adding that all concerns should be treated on the "basis of equality."
"The current situation in Ukraine is the result of many complex factors. China always makes its own position according to the merits of the matter itself. We believe that all countries should solve international disputes by peaceful means in line with the purposes and principles of the UN Charter," Zhang said.
The security council meeting comes as world leaders desperately try to de-escalate the situation in Ukraine, which saw a rapid shift when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian forces into two breakaway Moscow-backed territories after recognizing them as independent -- a move Western officials suggest would provide a pretext to a broader invasion of Ukraine.
Russia has for weeks said that it would not invade Ukraine, and in the security council meeting defended its actions as efforts "to protect and preserve those people" living in the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic and Luhansk People's Republic (DPR and LPR).
Amid growing condemnation, Russia has sought to draw closer to China, with Putin traveling to Beijing on February 4 to meet with Chinese leader Xi Jinping ahead of the Winter Olympics. The summit ended with the release of a sweeping statement that declared there were "no limits" to the two countries' relationship and "no 'forbidden' areas of cooperation."
The display of solidarity has not gone unnoticed in the West. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen referred to Xi and Putin's recent joint statement in strongly-worded remarks at the Munich Security Conference on Friday, suggesting Beijing and Moscow sought to replace the rule of law with "rule of the strongest."China has maintained that its interests are in dialogue and peaceful resolution, but experts say Beijing would be wary of being seen as culpable by association and would now seek to walk a tightrope.
"They don't want to get involved and they don't want to make a very strong statement, (that way) the US will not get angry and Russia (won't either)," said Alfred Wu, an associate professor with the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at National University of Singapore.
He added that Beijing would want to avoid Western sanctions targeting Moscow's actions and would "be careful about not having the image that they are openly supporting Russia."
China had earlier urged parties involved in the Ukraine crisis to return to the Minsk agreements, referring to accords reached in 2014 and 2015 following conflicts in eastern Ukraine that uphold Kyiv's control over its border with Russia.
In comments on Saturday while addressing the same conference in Munich, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said "sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries should be respected and safeguarded."
That puts China in an "awkward position" with regard to the latest developments, according to David Sacks, a research fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
"Until the last moment, China emphasized the need to return to the Minsk agreement, and Putin publicly tore that up and essentially ignored China's proposal for dealing with the crisis," he said.
Sacks said in conversations outside of the public eye "there is likely a vigorous debate occurring in Beijing regarding the long-term costs of alignment with Russia," he said.
"China's embrace of Russia will invite further pushback from the United States and Europe that it wants to avoid."
Though not military allies, China and Russia have been presenting an increasingly united front in the face of what they view as Western interference into their domestic affairs, pushing back on US-led sanctions and often voting as a bloc in the UN.
This was underlined in the February 4 joint statement, which did not mention Ukraine, but saw China back Russia's central demand to the West, with both sides "opposing further enlargement of NATO."
Yu Bin, professor of political science at Ohio's Wittenberg University and a senior fellow at the Russian Studies Center of the East China Normal University in Shanghai, said China shared concerns over NATO given the growing role of the bloc in the Indo-Pacific.
"There is, therefore, a convergence of Russia and China's perceptions of the US-led alliance in both Europe and in Asia as a result of the increasingly proactive posture (of the alliance)," he said.
On Monday night in the US, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with his Chinese counterpart Wang about developments in North Korea and "Russia's aggression against Ukraine," according to a brief readout from the State Department.
"The Secretary underscored the need to preserve Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity," the readout said.
According to a readout from the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Wang expressed "concern" about the situation in Ukraine. "China is concerned about [the] evolution of situation in Ukraine" and "legitimate security concerns of any country should be respected," Wang said during the call.
"The purposes and principles of the UN Charter should be upheld," Wang said, adding that the current situation in Ukraine is "closely related to the delay" in implementing the Minsk agreement.
The United States in Monday's security council meeting also called on countries to pick a side, with US Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield saying every UN member state has a stake in this brewing crisis. "This is a moment for collective action," she said. "There is too much at risk for anyone to sit on the fence."