Ukraine succumbed to Chinese pressure to remove its name from an international statement about human rights abuses in China’s western Xinjiang region by threatening to limit trade and withhold access to COVID-19 vaccines, Ukrainian officials and lawmakers with knowledge of the issue told RFE/RL.
After initially joining with more than 40 other countries on June 22, Kyiv withdrew its signature two days later from a statement at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva that called for China to allow independent observers immediate access to Xinjiang, where Beijing is operating a camp system that UN officials estimate has interned more than 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities.
Andriy Sharaskin, a Ukrainian lawmaker from the opposition Voice party who sits on parliament's Foreign Policy and Interparliamentary Cooperation Committee, told RFE/RL that Ukraine gave in to strong diplomatic pressure from China to withdraw its signature from the statement.
“[The Chinese Foreign Ministry] demanded that Ukraine withdraw its signature from the international statement on Uyghurs,” Sharaskin said. “This [pressure] continued until the signature was revoked.”
A senior Ukrainian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly, also confirmed this version of events to RFE/RL.
The official said China's Foreign Ministry blocked export documents for Chinese vaccines and that Beijing officials “hinted at the reason” for the shots 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 Chinese-made Sinovac vaccines.
Maria Ionova, a member of parliament from the European Solidarity party who chairs a subcommittee on Ukraine's strategic course for European Union and NATO membership, and Solomiya Bobrovska, an opposition Ukrainian lawmaker who serves as secretary for parliament's foreign policy committee, told RFE/RL that Chinese pressure led to Ukraine removing its signature from the statement calling for greater scrutiny of alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
Oleksandr Merezhko, a lawmaker from the majority Servant of the People party who chairs Ukraine’s parliamentary committee on foreign policy, told RFE/RL he was not aware of any overt pressure or demands placed on Kyiv by Beijing.
“I don’t think that China has openly asked the Ukrainian government to not sign anything,” he said.
The AP reported on June 25, citing Western diplomatic sources, that the alleged pressure centered on a threat to block a planned shipment of at least 500,000 Chinese-made vaccines to Ukraine unless it dropped its support for the diplomatic statement.
Following the AP report, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said it does not attach political demands to supplying vaccines and that while it welcomes Kyiv’s decision to remove its name from the statement, it had not “heard that Ukraine has encountered any difficulty in importing vaccines from China.”
Bobrovska said the Chinese pressure was “really about refusing to sign [the statement] in exchange for vaccines,” but Sharaskin added that Beijing also leaned on Kyiv by threatening to limit trade and offered more investment in Ukrainian infrastructure in exchange for the revocation of Kyiv's signature.
On June 30, shortly after withdrawing its signature, China and Ukraine announced an infrastructure agreement with Beijing promising to increase investment and attract more Chinese companies into the country.
The Chinese Embassy in Kyiv did not respond to RFE/RL’s request for comment on the reports.
The episode comes as Ukraine looks to deepen its relationship with China and position itself to navigate a growing global competition between Beijing and Washington.
Ukraine has been at war with Russia-backed forces in its eastern Donbas region since 2014, following Moscow’s seizure of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, and Kyiv has aspirations to further integrate with the EU and NATO.
Ukraine, however, is also looking to build strong economic ties with Beijing as it reorients its economy away from Russia, and has recently found itself frustrated with Western policy moves. Those include a U.S.-German decision to finish the Nord Stream 2 pipeline despite Kyiv's objections and Ukraine being blocked from access to U.S.-produced vaccines, positions that have left Kyiv eyeing closer ties to China.
“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.
China and Ukraine have a complicated relationship that has changed dramatically since the outbreak of fighting with Russia-backed forces in 2014.
While the EU represents Ukraine’s largest trading relationship, China has overtaken Russia as Kyiv’s single-largest trading partner, accounting for 14.4 percent of the country’s imports and 15.3 percent of its exports. Likewise, both Beijing and Kyiv have offered one another tacit political support, with China never recognizing Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Ukraine viewing Taiwan as part of China.
Kyiv-Beijing ties were strained earlier this year when Ukraine blocked Chinese investors from acquiring the Ukrainian aerospace company Motor Sich, reportedly due to lobbying from Washington, which wanted to block China from acquiring valuable military technologies from the Ukrainian firm.
“They did [the United States] a very serious favor by not selling [Motor Sich] to the Chinese,” John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told RFE/RL.
The June 30 agreement between China and Ukraine, while short on specifics, outlines broad cooperation to attract Chinese investment into railways, airports, and ports, as well as telecommunications infrastructure in Ukraine as Kyiv looks to better position itself within China’s multibillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative.
Several Ukrainian politicians have also offered statements that hint towards a rapprochement with Beijing following the Motor Sich saga and anger towards Washington reaching an agreement with Germany to complete Nord Stream 2, a controversial Russian gas pipeline to Europe that bypasses Ukraine and Kyiv says undermines its energy security.
This is part of a wider trend of deepening ties between Beijing and Kyiv that could see Ukraine shifting its foreign policy over time, Mykhaylo Honchar, the president of the Strategy XXI Center for Global Studies, a Kyiv-based think tank, told RFE/RL.
Zelenskiy, who is set to make his first White House visit with President Joe Biden on August 30, told Axios in February that he did not consider China to be a major geopolitical threat and that he disagreed with Washington’s growing competition with Beijing.
“Ukraine is trying its best to hedge geopolitically,” Olga Oliker, the program director for Europe and Central Asia at the International Crisis Group, told RFE/RL. “But Ukraine doesn’t have a lot of equal relationships. This is the danger of being a weaker country in the international system.”
Between East And West
Kyiv’s ties to Washington have been crucial for Ukraine since 2014, as the United States and other EU countries have offered economic, political, and military assistance to the country in its standoff with Russia.
But ties between Ukraine and the United States have also been frayed in recent years.
Kyiv has found itself drawn into U.S. domestic politics, most notably in July 2019 when U.S. President Donald Trump triggered a whistleblower complaint that led to his impeachment after a phone call he had with Zelenskiy.
During that call, Trump asked the Ukrainian leader for a “favor,” suggesting that he wanted Kyiv to announce an investigation into Hunter Biden, the son of Joe Biden -- who at the time was emerging as a likely challenger to Trump in the 2020 election -- in return for him releasing critical military aid to Ukraine.
More recently, a lack of access to Western vaccines has also been a sore spot for Zelenskiy, who has openly talked about Ukraine’s struggles in procuring enough injections for its population of 44 million.
In an end-of-the-year statement to Ukrainians, Zelenskiy wrote bitterly that, unfortunately, “the richest” countries would have vaccines first.
In search of doses and increasingly hit hard by COVID-19, Kyiv turned to Beijing for vaccines, eventually placing an order for 1.9 million Chinese-made Sinovac shots.
It was a shipment of this batch of vaccines that was held up by Beijing to pressure Kyiv to drop its name from the statement in Geneva.
Bobrovska, Ionova, and Sharaskin all expressed concern that Kyiv -- by succumbing to Chinese pressure -- could open the door to similar incidents in the future. All three lawmakers have said they plan to use their parliamentary powers to call for more information about other potential episodes of Chinese pressure being placed on Ukraine.
“There are a number of ultimatums that China is giving to Ukraine,” Bobrovska said. “But it is Ukraine's right to agree to them or not. I am sorry that Ukraine went for it and did not sign the document.”