Although China’s response to the current crisis in Ukraine has been complex, reflecting the numerous competing principles facing Beijing, China has increasing tilted toward Moscow, even as Russian policies towards Ukraine have become more aggressive. In this drift, Beijing is moving away from longstanding principles in a manner that could present growing security threats to China’s interests. Beijing’s decision to back Moscow is understandable but worrisome, and not really in China’s best long-term interests.
The initial Chinese government response to developments in Ukraine was to adhere to its longstanding principles of non-intervention in a country’s internal affairs and respect for its sovereignty and territorial integrity. More recent Chinese statements have downplayed the importance of these principles and instead have emphasized “the lawful rights and interests of all ethnic communities in Ukraine,” implying support for Ukraine’s ethnic Russians.
Furthermore, the Chinese government has refrained from joining other countries in criticizing the Russian military intervention or the decision to hold a referendum on whether Crimea should join the Russian Federation. Beijing has expressed disapproval of the U.S. decision to impose sanctions on those Russians responsible for the Crimean takeover. Chinese media commentators have even more explicitly argued that Beijing should back Moscow’s position since that would best advance China’s strategic interests in balancing Western influence in Eurasia.
Beijing’s bandwagoning with Moscow is understandable in light of China’s strategic and economic ties with Russia. The two countries have joined together to constrain Western actions in Syria and Iran, maintain security in Central Asia, and develop new energy and other economic ties. China’s trade with Russia is perhaps ten times greater than it is with Ukraine.
Chinese media commentators have been pushing Beijing to back Moscow’s position. They argue that Russia is helping balance Western influence in Eurasia and diverting U.S. military power away from China. The media generally blames the West for precipitating the current crisis by helping its allies seize power in Ukraine heedless of the vital Russian interests at stake. A Xinhua commentary insisted that “it is time for Western powers to abandon their Cold War thinking, stop trying to exclude Russia from the political crisis they have failed to mediate, and respect Russia’s unique role in mapping out the future of Ukraine.” The implication is that Russia’s counter-intervention in the Crimea, though much more extensive than that of the West, can be justified as a response.
An earlier commentary that appeared on these pages on March 5 by Chen Xiangyang, Deputy Director, Institute of World Political Studies, argued that, “The two sides have engaged in both geopolitical and ideological competition in Ukraine, and the West has tried hard to undermine the Russian position… While observing the evolution of Russia-West relations with a cool head, and maintaining economic cooperation and trade with Ukraine, China should also bear in mind that both China and Russia are confronted with Western pressures. China should therefor steadily promote strategic collaboration with Russia and jointly counter Western interference.”
But China runs a risk by supporting Russia’s revisionist behavior. If Beijing accepts the results of the March 16 referendum in Crimea, others can more easily justify holding a referendum on independence in Taiwan or in Xinjiang, the site of the recent outrageous terrorist attack at Kunming’s train station. If Beijing overlooks Russia’s military occupation of the Crimea, than other countries will worry that China might be more likely to try to resolve its own territorial disputes by using force. The conclusion of a recent Global Times editorial, that the “evolution of the Ukrainian situation shows us clearly that in the international political arena, principles are decided by power,” was read in some foreign circles as signifying that Beijing would adopt a more realpolitik and less principled attitude towards these disputes.
These considerations correctly led China to oppose the Russian military intervention in Georgia in 2008. Beijing has still not recognized the independence claims of the separatist regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, both still under Russian occupation. During the Soviet period, China joined with the West in opposing Moscow’s military interventions against Czechoslovakia, Afghanistan, and Poland. The United States also turned aside Soviet inquiries in 1969 whether Washington might look the other way if Moscow used its strategic forces to destroy China’s nascent nuclear weapons arsenal before it could become a major threat to both countries.
Fortunately, on this occasion, China’s good relations with Russia and Ukraine place Beijing in a strong position to help resolve the crisis. Beijing should join others in persuading the Russia government to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity in return for guarantees regarding the safety and security of the Russian community in Ukraine, which in truth has never been threatened.
In a recent phone conversation, President Xi Jinping told Russian President Vladimir Putin that, “China believes that Russia can coordinate with other parties to push for the political settlement of the issue so as to safeguard regional and world peace and stability.” According to the Chinese media, Xi reportedly added “China supports the proposals and mediation efforts of the international community that are conducive to reduction of tension.”
Although Xi did not indicate how strongly China would push for the international settlement of an issue that Moscow would prefer to resolve unilaterally, Liu Zuokui, deputy head of the Department of Central and Eastern European Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, has written that, “China should not act as spectator and proponent, but actively take part in the negotiation and consultation mechanism for a peaceful solution to the political crisis.”
China should encourage Russia to behave more responsibly regarding Ukraine, and join with other countries in helping the Ukrainian economy recover from its recent trauma.
Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Political-Military Analysis at the Hudson Institute.