The Crimean conflict was unwelcome for China’s leaders, through skillful diplomacy has managed to transform an initial damage limitation strategy into one that will likely bring benefits to Beijing. China has won praise from both sides of the conflict without suffering any major costs or even engaging in actions besides issuing principled statements from the sidelines.
On the one hand, Russian President Vladimir Putin has praised China for not joining Western governments and voting for a Security Council resolution that termed Russia’s annexation of the Crimea illegal. The PRC Foreign Ministry has expressed “understanding” for why the Kremlin–given its strategic, historical, and humanitarian ties with the Crimea–decided to engineer the Peninsula’s transfer from Ukraine to Russia. The Chinese media has generally been even more vocal in siding with Moscow, claiming that Russia was only responding to previous Western efforts to pull Ukraine into its orbit and citing earlier cases when the United States and its allies employed force without UN approval.
Chinese officials undoubtedly dislike the kinds of mass popular protests that toppled former President Viktor Yanukovych from power. Chinese media commentary has generally echoed Russia’s line that the West was orchestrating the popular protests in Kiev in pursuit of yet another “colored revolution” aimed at overthrowing a pro-Moscow government in another former Soviet republic. At times, China’s leaders have seen themselves as the target of Western efforts at regime change. Beijing has joined Moscow in opposing Western military interventions in Kosovo, Iraq, and now Syria.
In addition, Beijing is opposing the new Western sanctions against Moscow. The Chinese government has long opposed Western sanctions, which have often been applied to Chinese companies and other entities seen as violating nonproliferation or other norms. The PRC line is that sanctions are generally counterproductive and that the West applies them in a hypocritical manner, enforcing them against regimes it opposes while protecting its friends from punishment.
China shares with Russia many important strategic, economic, and diplomatic interests, ranging from a mutual desire to preserve stability in Central Asia to a growing bilateral energy trade to a joint desire to sustain the primacy of the UN Security Council to determine when the United States and its allies can use force. Chinese and Russian officials regularly describe their mutual relations as the best they have ever been. President Xi Jinping was recently in Sochi, ignoring the de facto Western leadership boycott of the Winter Olympics Games due to their human rights and other concerns. Putin has announced plans to visit China soon.
Yet, China has kept just distant enough from Russia on the Crimean issue to win praise from Western leaders for not overtly backing Russia’s annexation. President Barack Obama considered winning Beijing’s backing so important that he added his bilateral meeting with Xi yesterday to his overcrowded schedule at the last minute. The U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, cited Beijing’s abstention as important evidence of Russia’s isolation on this key issue.
Russia’s decision to use military force to alter Ukraine’s internationally recognized borders ran against Beijing’s longstanding opposition to foreign military intervention on behalf of separatist movements. China demands that foreign countries refrain from supporting Uyghur separatism in Xinjiang, Tibetan aspirations for political self-determination, or acts by Taipei implying Taiwan’s independence from Beijing. After wavering in the early days of the Crimea crisis, Chinese officials have again the importance of respecting Ukraine’s territorial integrity and declined to again join Moscow in a double veto against a Western-backed Security Council resolution.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Li Baodong implied that Moscow’s decision to hold a referendum in the Crimea on March 16 was, like the subsequent Western effort to seek a condemnatory resolution in the Security Council, an unwelcome escalation of the crisis. PRC officials have denounced previous Taiwanese leaders for trying to hold referenda in 2004 and 2008 on whether their island should claim independence.
After seeming to tilt toward Moscow in early March, China has now returned to the line Beijing followed during the 2008 Georgia Crisis. Despite opposing the U.S. Asia Pivot and President Xi’s adopting a generally more nationalist stance in protecting China’s interests than his predecessor, Beijing has again declined to endorse a Russian military operation to help detach a separatist region from its legally recognized owner. Beijing still refuses to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia and will likely persist in Crimea stance for many years. Through its stance, China has made it easier for Russia’s other partners, especially the former Soviet republics, to decline to accept the legality of Russia’s unilateral military actions.
It also looks likely that Ukraine’s new leaders—hatful of the Kremlin for seizing their territory but also angry at the West for upholding earlier promises to protect their country against such aggression–will try to maintain good economic and other ties with China. In the past, Ukraine has proved helpful to Beijing in circumventing Russian arms export restrictions against providing advanced military technology to China. In the future, China could become one of the new Ukraine’s most important foreign partners since Moscow will threaten to seize more Ukrainian territory if it moves closer to NATO. With a close Western partnership out of reach, Ukraine will likely join other former Soviet republics and pursue deeper economic and strategic ties with China, which Moscow, perhaps shortsightedly, considers more acceptable than their aligning with the West.
China will probably also be able to sustain its growing economic presence in the Crimea even under Russian occupation. Moscow will probably welcome further Chinese investment in the region, which is not economically self-sustainable, Chinese diplomacy has become more skillful at managing similar cases of regime and border changes. For example, after providing military and other assistance to the central government of Sudan for years, China readily accepted the independence of South Sudan, where Beijing has partnered with the new government to secure access to its oil exports.
And the United States will probably encourage China to maintain a presence in both parts of Ukraine in order to dilute Russian influence and discourage Moscow from stirring up further trouble in the country. U.S. policy makers would have liked Beijing to take a stringer stance against Moscow’s aggression toward the Crimea, but has probably received whatever support it can reasonably expect from cross-pressured China.
Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute.