Berlin - President Xi Jinping said on Friday China would not take sides with the West or Russia over Ukraine, disappointing any hopes Beijing might add its weight to international pressure on Moscow for annexing Crimea.
“China does not have any private interests in the Ukraine question,” Xi told a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “All parties involved should work for a political and diplomatic solution to the conflict.”
China has adopted a cautious response to the Ukraine crisis, not wanting to alienate its ally Russia or make comment directly on a referendum in which Crimea voted to join Russia, lest it set a precedent for restive regions of its own such as Tibet.
In an U.N. Security Council vote earlier this month on a draft resolution to condemn the Moscow-backed referendum in Crimea, China's abstention effectively isolated Russia.
“If I were Russia, I would not be satisfied with the number of votes in favour of Russia,” said Merkel, who despite her country's close trade ties with Moscow and heavy reliance on Russia gas exports has backed European Union and U.S. sanctions.
The chancellor, who has tried to use her influence on Russia President Vladimir Putin to de-escalate the crisis, called the U.N. vote a clear sign “that the international community is not very happy with what Russia has done”.
China has signaled understanding for Russia's position, saying what is happening “has historical reasons”. Chinese state media has also expressed sympathy for Moscow.
But China has also said it wants to develop “friendly cooperation” with Ukraine. Its foreign ministry said this week Beijing would play a “constructive role” on international financial aid for Ukraine, though it stopped short of saying whether Beijing would participate directly.
“We support the constructive efforts the international community has made to de-escalate the situation and are open to any concepts which serve to calm the situation and to bring about a political solution,” Xi said in Berlin.
“The Chinese side always respects the principles of international relations and non-intervention in the internal business of other states,” he said.
The Chinese leader's first visit to Germany since becoming president last year saw the signature of business deals that will add to bilateral trade that was worth about 140 billion euros last year.
But business considerations did not prevent Merkel from publicly raising China's patchy record on human rights and free speech with the visiting president.
“Broad and free expression of opinion is of course a very important element to promote the creativity of a society, be it in research, culture or civil society,” said the chancellor.
There was no official comment on reports that Xi might visit a monument to the Holocaust in Berlin during his visit. China likes to contrast Germany's profound atonement for its World War Two atrocities with what it sees as Japan's reluctance to do so.
Ties between the Asian rivals took a turn for the worse in December last year when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited a Tokyo shrine China sees as a symbol of Japan's militaristic past because it honours wartime leaders and millions of war dead.
But Xi did use a speech in Berlin on Friday evening to recall Japan's wartime invasion of the Chinese city of Nanjing and say that such atrocities “are still fresh in our memory”.