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China’s Soft “Nyet” to Russia’s Ukraine Intervention

by Elizabeth C. Economy
March 5, 2014

China's President Xi Jinping ( C) and his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yanukovich inspect honour guards during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on December 5, 2013. (Jason Lee/Courtesy Reuters) China's President Xi Jinping ( C) and his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yanukovich inspect honour guards during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on December 5, 2013. (Jason Lee/Courtesy Reuters)

This post is one of a three-part Asia Unbound series on the implications for Asia of the crisis in Ukraine. See related posts from my colleagues Alyssa Ayres and Sheila Smith.

Russia’s de facto assertion of military control in Ukraine’s Crimean region has put China in a bind. Moscow’s actions fly in the face of one of China’s longest held tenets of foreign policy: “no interference in the internal affairs of others.” Yet China is loathe to criticize publicly one of the few countries that never criticizes it. So what is Beijing to do?

Reading media headlines in the United States, it would be easy to assume that China had simply cast its lot with Russia. Referring to commentary in state-run media such as the Global Times and Xinhua, many western outlets see Beijing as unequivocally supporting Moscow. And indeed, an editorial in the Global Times is particularly clear in its preference that China stand with Russia. It notes that Russia is China’s “most reliable strategic partner” and urges that China not “disappoint Russia when it finds itself in a time of need.” According to the Global Times, China should prove itself a reliable strategic partner: “This way, we will make friends.” It is tempting to ask what kind of friends China will be making by supporting Russia, but that seems beside the point. As for China’s long-standing commitment to non-interference, the Global Times offers this rather confused commentary: “Some think China’s policy of non-interference will be tested in this matter, and that if China supports Russia, it will become ensnared in a diplomatic trap. This is the mentality of the weak. The West has interfered in the internal affairs of many countries, but never admitted it.”

Yet before we assume that the Global Times is a government mouthpiece, I am mindful of a meeting I had a few years back with officials from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA). They were emphatic in arguing that the Chinese media—whether state-funded or not—were not a reliable proxy for official Chinese policy. Indeed, there is nothing to date in statements by the PRC’s foreign ministry to suggest that Chinese president Xi Jinping is prepared to hold hands with Putin and jump off a diplomatic cliff. Here is what MOFA spokesman Qin Gang has said thus far: “It is China’s longstanding position not to interfere in others’ internal affairs. We respect the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.” And further, he noted, “We understand the historical background of the Ukraine issue, and the complexity of the current reality. As I have said yesterday, to get to this point today, things happened for a reason. We hope that all parties can, through dialogue and consultation, find a political situation, prevent further escalation and work together to safeguard peace and stability in the region.”

What is behind China’s failure to stand up for Moscow? As Voice of America has reported, China has strong business interests in Ukraine that would undoubtedly be threatened were China to come out in support of Russia. Ukraine is a major source of arms for China and a growing partner in China’s resource quest. For example, Ukraine has agreed to lease 5 percent of its land to China for agricultural purposes in exchange for Chinese infrastructure investment. Of course these deals were struck under ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. It is possible that the new government will not recognize or revoke them if they were struck under terms perceived as unequal by the new government. Certainly, however, Chinese-Ukrainian business relations will suffer more if Beijing overtly backs Moscow.

In addition, China’s relationship with Russia is more complicated than it might first appear. Nominally, the two are partners, sharing common cause in the United Nations Security Council, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and gatherings of the BRICs. Yet beneath the surface, there is competition between the two authoritarian giants, particularly for leadership in Central Asia, and a historical lack of trust among many within the broader citizenry of each country.

There is a lot at stake for China—far more than the Global Times appears to realize. Non-interference has stood China in good stead, justifying inaction in many crisis situations from Sudan to Syria to North Korea. Non-interference also applies to China itself and Beijing’s long-standing concern that others might want to meddle in China’s internal affairs. Let’s not forget that all along China’s periphery are provinces and autonomous regions with restive minorities that boast closer ethnic and/or cultural ties to China’s neighbors than to Beijing. What if Mongolia stirred up trouble in Inner Mongolia, or some of the Central Asian states such as Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan caused problems in Xinjiang?

Letting Russia have its way would undermine China’s relationship with Ukraine and cost Beijing significant credibility abroad. Of course, it is possible that as time goes on, other considerations could emerge. Beijing might see merit in supporting Moscow, for example, in exchange for Moscow’s support of Beijing’s maritime ambitions. But for now, as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs appears to realize, sometimes when a friend has a bad idea, you just have to say no.

Post a Comment 5 Comments

  • Posted by Oleg Timofeev

    I’m sure that Beijing’s perspectives are much more optimistic. Farmlands leased by China are located in the South-Eastern part of Ukraine with predominant Russian population. Under the lack of any reliable authority in Kyiv the Zhongnanhai will have to deal should primarily with pro-Russian political leaders. After the accession to Russia Crimea itself could be a certain part of mutually beneficial Sino-Russian strategic economic partnership. China is interested in cushioncrafts from Feodosia and oil-tankers from Kerch etc. And vice versa, to accelerate the peninsula’s economic development Moscow and Simfy will strongly need investments from overseas.
    And last but not the least: does Prof. Economy really beleive in any possible Mongolia’s or Kyrgyz invasion in China ?

  • Posted by venze, boonteetan

    Invariably, China holds on to its foreign policy: “no interference in the internal affairs of others”.
    Beijing respects the wish of Ukrainians as well as that of Crimean people. Beijing remains very friendly to Moscow.

  • Posted by deluca

    Those who a generation ago once cautioned against too rapid a push east by NATO should be thankful that they lost the argument. All that separates the Baltic states from Ukraine is their membership in NATO. Russia, weakened and floundering in the immediate aftermath of a collapsed USSR accepted agreements and arrangements that a stronger more assertive Russia would have certainly resisted with success. A stronger and more stable Ukraine might have made Mr. Putin more circumspect. But here we are in 2014 with the contours of the mid 21st century international affairs starkly visible for all who to care to see it unfolding.

    We are entering a new era: the return of naked great power politics with nuclear weapons as the principle, if not the only, deterrent against full-fledged interstate conflagration among the great powers. China is cautiously testing the waters. But it is Russia that has opened the era, first in Georgia and now in Ukraine. Russia has torn the curtain away forcing the great powers of the world to confront once again the fragility of the balance of power. Central Europe can feel a familiar eastern chill and their concerns are palpable.

    Everyone wants to know what Mr. Putin wants. Mr. Putin wants, at the very least, to alter the status quo and that is sufficient to know that we are indeed entering a new era. Terrorism will remain. Terrorisms have been around for millennia in one form or another. It will never go away. But the great game is back and the nations of the world had better take notice.

    Mr. Putin is playing with fire. His adventure in Ukraine may place Russia’s long term security requirements at risk. All across its periphery Russia has territorial disagreements with its neighbors. Russia can ignore claims by nations such as Finland. But Russia cannot ignore the prospect of possible Chinese claims in the East Asia. All that keeps the Chinese at bay is a nuclear armed stable Russia. Pushing his Ukraine gambit too far may come back to haunt the very existence of the Russian Federation.

    The most serious side affect of his Crimean land grab is a determined western effort to make him pay a costly price for it if he does not reverse course. An American led campaign for stiff economic sanctions can be very painful to the Russian economy even with limited EU participation. Equally serious would be an EU policy to reduce its dependence on Russian gas. The western states have a whole range of economic policy options to play, with the accumulative effect that may weaken Central control by the Federation within its borders and diminish its influence along the Russian periphery.

    The Federation’s best long-term foreign policy has always been deeper and wider integration into a Europe whole and free. A weakening Russia is the most likely consequence of Mr. Putin’s adventurism. The prospect of a failing Russian Federation in the decades ahead will wet the appetite of a rich and powerful China that could buy or pressure its way into Siberia with impunity.

  • Posted by Gary R. White

    It would have been useful for Ms. Economy reviewed the Chinese position on showdown in Georgia over South Ossesia and the other break-away republic (the name of which escapes me).

    China had a fairly clear-cut opposition to foreign intervention in enabling the permanent secession of constituent sections of Georgian territory. This, of course, parallels China’s own concerns that many countries in the West would back Taiwan secession (including the small islands controlled by the Republic of China that are actually pieces of Fukien province).

    Currently, both the Republic of China and the People’s Republic of China (mainland China) formally designate “Taiwan” as an island province.

  • Posted by Kevin Brent

    Beijing simply realizes that Russia re-absorbing Ukraine and it’s population, industry strengthen Russia in the long term. Not to mention Ukraine is outside the reach of all but China’s ICBMs. Re-absorption of Ukraine into Russia, would make China’s long term plans for carving off the Russian Far East for itself, that much more difficult.

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