WITH international outrage over the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 increasingly directed at Russia, China finds itself having to tread a fine line.
While Beijing has so far refrained from assigning blame to its close ally Moscow, which backs separatist rebels believed to have shot down the plane over eastern Ukraine, it has to ensure its restraint does not make it appear callous, especially when 298 lives were lost.
The sense of loss is one that the Chinese people share.
In March, MAS flight MH370 with 239 people on board, 153 of them Chinese nationals, disappeared en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.
Since last Thursday's air disaster, China's top leadership has said little beyond calling for an objective investigation into what happened.
Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who is travelling with President Xi Jinping in Latin America, has urged all parties concerned to "refrain from making conjectures and prejudgment and, more importantly, avoid politicising the issue" before any probe is completed, Xinhua news agency reported.
"The crash further suggests that an early settlement of the Ukraine crisis is the fundamental way to maintain regional peace and stability," Mr Wang said.
On Monday, editorials in China's state media said that Western nations were politicising the tragedy and turning it into a geopolitical tussle with Russia, and cautioned against jumping to conclusions.
Official media too have opted for neutral language, preferring to use "crashed" and "non-government militia" instead of "shot down" and "pro-Russian rebels".
"China must be careful and rational in its response as it has nothing to gain from stepping into the international fray," said Sino-Russian expert Yang Cheng of East China Normal University.
"But if international investigations conclude that Russia is partly at fault, then Chinese leaders cannot remain neutral as it will affect their international standing," he added.
China Foreign Affairs University analyst Zhou Yongsheng said that if Russia is found to have armed the rebels with the anti-aircraft missile that took down MH17, then "it would be a regretful situation for China".
Sino-Russian ties are at an all-time high, thanks in part to the good relationship between their presidents.
A US$400 billion (S$496 billion) gas deal in May also pushed economic cooperation to unprecedented levels.
Also, in March, China abstained from a UN Security Council resolution declaring a referendum on Crimean secession as illegal - a show of support that Mr Putin publicly thanked Beijing for.
Analysts say that given the Chinese people's sympathy for MH17 victims and their families, Beijing would be hard pressed to consider a similar abstention if incontrovertible evidence of Russia's complicity in the tragedy should emerge.
"It is a relief there were no Chinese passengers on MH17," said Professor Zhou. "Otherwise the Chinese government's attitude towards Russia would have to change entirely."
This article was first published on July 23, 2014.
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