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Foreign Policy

China’s Stance on the Ukraine Issue and the Role It Can Play

Apr 02 , 2015
  • Yu Sui

    Professor, China Center for Contemporary World Studies

The Ukraine crisis has continued for one year since riots erupted in Kiev Square in February 2014. China’s attitude toward the issue and what kind of a role Beijing may play in the crisis is of wide concern.

The issue has placed China in a rather awkward position.

In February 2014, the then Ukrainian president decided to put off the signing of the provisional agreement for joining the European Union. He did not violate the law in doing so, for it was within his functions and powers as the president. At that time, the four parties in the controversy had agreed to hold the presidential election on December 25th, but Kiev Square riots ruined the agreement and overthrew the country’s legitimate president. It was impossible for China to approve of the development in the country, which Beijing regarded as violations of the United Nations Charter and the basic norms governing international relations. The Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman “condemns the extremist violence” in Ukraine. After the country elected a new president, China said it “respects the Ukrainian people’s choice.”

Then there came the March 16th referendum in Crimea, in which 97 percent of the voters opted for joining Russia. This once again placed China’s principles in a kind of dilemma. The heads of state of the two countries had just declared on December 5th, 2013 that China and Ukraine would establish and develop a “strategic partnership,” which emphasizes that both sides “firmly support each other on issues concerning state sovereignty, unity, and territorial integrity.”

It is widely known under what kind of historical conditions the Soviet Union decided in 1954 to give Crimea, which belonged to Russia at the time, to Ukraine as a gift. It is also well known that Russia had leased the port of Sevastopol from Ukraine for its Black Sea Fleet and the lease will expire by 2017 and that the two countries agreed on April 21, 2010 to extend the lease for another 25 years. That means that before the Ukraine crisis there wasn’t the possibility, and conditions, for Russia to take back Crimea and Sevastopol even though Moscow had long suffered from a painful reminiscence of the lost territories. The new crisis created an opportunity for the territories to be “delivered to the door” of Russia. Under these circumstances, all the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman could say was that the Chinese government would stick to the diplomatic principles it had insisted upon and the basic norms governing international relations while giving considerations to the historical factors of the Ukrainian issue and the complexity of situation. He also said that it was not without reason that the situation in Ukraine had evolved to become what is today.

Despite the dilemma, China remained impartial in the matter. It repeatedly appealed to all relevant parties to respect the International Law as well as the basic norms governing international relations and settle their disputes through dialogues so as to maintain peace in the region.

Last year, on March 5, Russian President Vladimir Putin made a hotline call to inform Chinese President Xi Jiping of his understanding of the Ukrainian changes and Russia’s stance and response. Xi stated China’s stance and said that for all the accidental factors in the matter, the Ukraine crisis has its own inevitability. “The current situation in the country,” Xi said, “is highly complex and sensitive and carries considerable implications for the regional and international situations.” He said China supported the international community’s mediation efforts to ease tensions in the region.

When, five days later, U.S. President Barack Obama invited President Xi for a hotline talk discussing the Ukraine crisis, Xi assured Obama that China would “take an objective and fair attitude” towards the matter, saying that “the most urgently needed right now is that all parties remain cool-headed and exercise self-restraint to prevent the situation from worsening.”

The international community seems to feel rather disappointed and powerless to see the Ukraine crisis last so long. At this time, the world is expecting China to play a substantial role. However, what China should and can do may not be exactly that expected by the international community. All China can do is no more than three things. First, it can mediate between Russia and Ukraine using its good rapport with both countries. Second, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, it can exercise certain influence with its objective, fair, impartial and peace-loving attitude in discussions at the UN for any resolutions on the Ukrainian issue. Third, it can make diplomatic contact with the U.S. and EU to help ease the tension in their relations with Russia.

Some people alleged that the Ukraine crisis had benefited China, saying that the issue had drawn much of Washington’s attention and thus eased the pressure on China in the East. That’s a groundless speculation. China never gloats at others’ misfortune. It is China’s hope that tensions in the regional are eased as soon as possible and the Ukrainian people no longer suffer the disasters of conflict.

Some others said the intensified contradiction between Russia and the U.S. caused both countries to woo China for support. That may be correct, but the situation was not caused by China, who in its true intention wants to keep good relations with the two countries. It is Washington who should be reminded that “using two hands simultaneously” to hit both Russia and China is an unwise strategy.
There is also speculation that imposing sanctions on Russia will backfire to inflict losses on the EU itself, who will have to seek a better relationship with China. That may be true. It is advisable for the EU to ease up on its trade protectionism against China.

In all, China’s stance on the Ukraine issue is just and impartial but its role will be limited.

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