China’s handling of the Putin-engineered annexation of Crimea from Ukraine into the Russian Federation reflects deeply competing Chinese interests. On the one hand, Beijing values its strategic partnership with Russia — a partnership tracing back to 1996 — especially now, when Sino-U.S. relations are tense over the intertwined issues of Washington’s “pivot” to Asia and Chinese cyber-espionage against U.S. advanced weapons research and development. In Washington there is a growing sense that the military gap between China and the U.S. is narrowing rapidly because of Chinese cyber-penetration of U.S. military-industrial firms and approaching a transition point between rising and incumbent paramount powers, which may be especially dangerous. Japan under Shinzo Abe’s second government (in office since December 2012) also has begun courting India with unprecedented vigor. Even more startling, New Delhi is responding with an unembarrassed embrace of Tokyo. Beijing’s trump card of “the history issue” does not play very well in New Delhi. Given these elemental shifts in the balance of power that are in play, Beijing has no interest in loosening its strategic partnership with Russia. In terms of energy supply, a falloff in European purchases of Soviet natural gas also would not be bad for China, perhaps prompting Moscow to offer China lower prices, easing one of the hurdles to expanded Russo-Chinese energy cooperation over the past decade or so.
These interests may explain why China has decided to call in a $3 billion loan to Ukraine in late February1. If China stands by this demand for Ukrainian repayment of this loan as Kiev faces mounting Russian pressure and economic difficulties, this would represent substantial, if low-keyed Chinese support for Moscow in this crisis.
On the other hand, Beijing has long-standing and strongly felt taboos against foreign interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states and secession of territories within sovereign states on the basis of popular elections. Since the end of the Cold War, China has emerged as a staunch defender of strong state sovereignty norms, opposing attempts by one state to bring about political changes within another. This preference for strong state sovereignty norms is rooted in Beijing’s apprehensions regarding Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang and fears that “the West led by the United States”2 might attempt to detach one or all of those regions from the PRC, using the pretext of popular will and elections. From Beijing’s perspective, this was what “the West led by the United States” did first with the Baltic republics of the declining USSR, and then with ex-Communist Yugoslavia. Thus, if Beijing openly endorsed Putin’s seizure of the Crimea, it would open China to charges of hypocrisy. Such charges could be influential with Western public opinion, which is the main target of China’s defense of state sovereignty norms.
In line with these interests, Beijing abstained in the U.N. Security Council when Britain, France, and the United States proposed a resolution condemning the Russian-organized referendum on Crimean secession from Ukraine and entry into the Russian Federation. President Barack Obama telephoned President Xi Jinping before the Security Council vote on March 16 to lobby for China to vote “yes” on the Western-backed proposal.3 Instead China merely abstained, allowing Russia’s veto alone to kill the condemnatory proposal. This was a marked departure from the close cooperation of Moscow and Beijing on a score of issues before the Security Council since the mid-1990s. It also allowed Western powers to claim that Russia was isolated. More important for Beijing, it allowed China to evade endorsement of foreign intervention in another state’s internal affairs and succession of territories on the basis of popular will and elections. In terms of formal declared position, Beijing has called for resolution of differences through peaceful discussion and dialogue, and for respect for Ukrainian sovereignty. Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang said on March 4:
“We uphold the principle of non-interference in others’ internal affairs and respect international law and widely recognized norms governing international relations. Meanwhile we take into account the historical facts and realistic complexity of the Ukrainian issue”4
When pressed to explain what he meant by relevant “historical facts,” Qin invited his audience to “please review or refer to the history of Ukraine and this region.” That “history” might refer to “the eastward expansion of NATO” condemned routinely by Beijing and Moscow during the 1990s, and/or to the long and close association between Russia and the Ukraine. Or it might not. That is left to one’s imagination. When the issue was debated again in the General Assembly (in which no country has veto power), China joined 57 other countries in abstaining from a resolution condemning Russian actions and calling on states to “desist and refrain” from actions recognizing changes in Ukraine’s borders achieved through threat or use of force. On this occasion Ambassador Liu Jieyi stated that a General Assembly vote “would only complicate the picture,” and he called on all parties to “examine proposals for a political settlement.”5
At a more fundamental level, it is fortunate for China that the U.S. has been pulled, once again, into a crisis in a region of the world far from the Western Pacific where the U.S. and the PRC are working out a new balance. Beijing recognized the 9/11 attacks as a strategic windfall for China, keeping the United States from fixing on China as its next rival after the demise of the Soviet Union. Beijing views Obama’s desire to conclude U.S. involvement in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars as the counterpart of his “pivot to Asia,” which it deems to be a type of crypto-containment of China. The Ukrainian crisis, combined with deep cuts in U.S. defense spending, will hinder Washington’s ability to give substance to this new crypto-containment effort.
Against those hard realities Beijing weighs the specter of a world dominated by the will of the stronger in which armed seizure of territory becomes common. Some in Beijing certainly understand that that would lead to greater global instability that could undermine both China’s economic growth and national security. On the other hand, cooperation with a seemingly declining U.S. to uphold international order may be a step too far for China’s realist-minded leaders.
- “China sues Ukraine for breach of US$3b loan-for-grain agreement,” South China Morning Post, 27 February 2014. http://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/1435976/china-sues-ukraine-breach-us3b-loan-grain-agreement ↩
- The term “the West led by the United States” is commonly seen in the official Chinese media. ↩
- “Non –inerference on the line,” The Economist, 15 March 2014, p. 44. ↩
- Foreign Ministry spokesman,. http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/xwfw/s2510/t1134077.shtml ↩
- General Assembly, GA/ 11493, 27 March 2010. www.un.org ↩