Tough choice: Crisis in Ukraine pushes China into limbo

Tough choice: Crisis in Ukraine pushes China into limbo
Chinese authorities have turned out to be at the crossroads with no clear strategy regarding the Ukrainian crisis, as any definite stance would have a negative impact on relations with one of its main partners.

From the first days Ukrainian turmoil has gone beyond Ukrainian borders attracting more and more countries, parties involved and influencing various aspects of relations between nations. While the fiercest battle has broken out between the US/EU and Russia, with West taking up economic and diplomatic arms against Russia, little was said about Chinese government caught in between two poles.

On the one hand, there is a strong reluctance to stand with the West against Russia – a strategic partner and ally of Beijing that has never openly criticized it. On the other hand, it is also about the fundamental principle of Chinese foreign policy – noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries and commitment to the territorial integrity of states.

From the Western recognition of Kosovo independence to the American invasion of Iraq and to the US and EU military operations in Libya, China’s opposition to international interference into a country’s internal affairs has been one of the key principles of its foreign policy, which also resulted in Chinese “veto policy” in the UN Security Council. Such a stance has always coincided with Russian policy, generating a strong strategic partnership between states aimed at counteracting the diplomatic and economic power of the West. Indeed, one of the most important elements of Beijing’s policy comes from Chinese aspiration to play a more proactive role in maintaining peace and security in the world as a responsible member of the international community which counterweights Western states devoted to hard power.

Initially, Beijing’s stance on Ukrainian crisis was neutral since it didn't infringe that much on Chinese interests. On February 20, China's top newspaper People's Daily criticized the West for remaining locked in a "Cold War mentality" against Russia in the contest for influence over Ukraine, calling for the shackles of such outdated thinking to be thrown off to deal with the crisis.

"The theories related to politics, economics and security during the Cold War period are still influencing many people on their concept of the world, and some Western people are still imbued with resentment towards Russia," the paper said.

However, the escalation of the conflict made Chinese authorities to revise their position. And that was the particular moment when both Russia and the US tried to reach Beijing to get its support.

On March 2, after Russia’s Federation Council authorized the use of armed forces in Ukraine, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang issued a special statement on the situation.

“China is deeply concerned about the current situation in Ukraine,” he said.

He also called on “the relevant parties in Ukraine to resolve their internal disputes peacefully within the legal framework.” As for external interference in the Ukraine, Qin Gang emphasized that China respects “the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine” and that a solution should be found “based on respect for international law and norms.” Condemning violent outbreaks over the past days in Ukraine, Qin said that China has been urging all parties in Ukraine to address their domestic disputes peacefully in accordance with the state's law, safeguard the legitimate rights of the Ukrainian people of all ethnics, and restore social order as soon as possible.

At the same time the state-run news agency Xinhua published quotes from the telephone conversation between Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. As Xinhua reported, President Xi said that “China believes that Russia can coordinate with other parties to push for the political settlement of the issue.”

Xinhua blamed the West for the escalation of the Ukrainian crisis, saying that the West’s “biased mediation has polarized Ukraine and only made things worse in the country.” It also called on the US and the EU to “stop trying to exclude Russia from the political crisis they failed to mediate” and to “respect Russia’s unique role in mapping out the future of Ukraine.”

On the whole, China hasn’t condemned Russia’s actions, though it hasn't overwhelmingly supported them either. Nevertheless, Global Times, a nationalist tabloid owned by the ruling Communist Party, argued in its editorial that “backing Russia is in China’s interests” and that “we shouldn't disappoint Russia when it finds itself in a time of need” because Moscow “has been resisting the eastward trend of Western forces in Ukraine.”

Ukraine Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk walks into the United Nations Security Council chamber before his address to a meeting of the Council on the crisis in Ukraine, at U.N. Headquarters in New York, March 13, 2014.(Reuters / Mike Segar)

Between two fires

It appears that China has suddenly found itself in a difficult position, not knowing which side to choose. On the one hand, cooperation between Russia and China has been growing since the early 1990s, when the fall of the Soviet Union brought an end to the decades of enmity and rivalry largely based on ideological differences between the two Communist states. During the last year, relations between the two giants have been evolving and actively developing in various spheres. In particular, in 2013 China and Russia signed 21 trade agreements, including a new 100 million ton oil supply deal with China’s Sinopec. China also promised to pump $20 billion of investment into domestic projects in Russia focusing on transport infrastructure, highways, ports, and airports, and it hoped to increase investment in Russia four-fold by 2020. In 2013 the trade volume between states reached $89 billion, with bilateral economic relations showing positive signs meaning that further cooperation would even increase.

In fact, Beijing has demonstrated several times the importance of having close ties with Russia. For instance, President Xi paid his first official to Moscow and he also visited the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi Olympics. China is seeking to dominate in the Asia-Pacific region alongside Russia, and not to let the US establish its hegemony in that region.

Moreover, as permanent members of the UN Security Council, the two countries have come to rely on each other to veto measures such as military interventions or the imposition of economic sanctions. Russia has used its veto six times since 2007 and on five of these occasions China did the same. The only time China didn't openly support Russia was during the Georgian crisis in 2008, when China abstained from voting in the Security Council. It’s clear that denouncing Putin’s decision to send troops to Ukraine would jeopardize the political and economic partnership between Beijing and Moscow. And even worse, standing against the Kremlin would mean that China is standing with the West. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that China would support any Security Council efforts to restrain and isolate Russia. If the US and the EU close their doors to Russia, the importance of Chinese-Russian relations would skyrocket.

On the other hand, US-China relations have been also improving during the last few years and Beijing can’t easily sacrifice them. The cooperation between Washington and Beijing has recently reached a new level as the states have chosen “win-win” tactics while building bilateral ties. Furthermore, trade volume between states is also increasing, with total exports and imports in 2013 reaching $122 billion and $440 billion, respectively.

The US administration is also trying to woo China's support through capitalizing on Beijing's policy of non-intervention, which China has used as a rationale for limiting its involvement in states’ internal affairs around the world. The US officials believe that China may be viewing the situation in Crimea through the lens of how it could impact their own security. Indeed, Chinese leaders are displeased by the referendum that the Crimean parliament has called for March 16 to choose whether the autonomous region should break away from Ukraine and join Russia. Given the aspirations of millions of Tibetans, Mongolians and Uighurs who are seeking independence from China, Beijing’s support for the Crimea’s referendum could prompt separatism inside China. Those fears were highlighted this month when a group of attackers from far west Xinjiang, a region with a large population of Turkic-speaking Muslims, knifed to death 29 people at a train station in southwest China.

However, Chinese authorities are very cautious when it comes to so-called “color revolutions” that were instigated by the Western states to oust unfriendly regimes. And these concerns have a good reason if just take into account the issue of Taiwan. At the same time now, when these is a new “government” in Kiev, China also faces a dilemma over how to deal with it since China has its interest in cooperation with Ukraine. Last year, the two countries reportedly signed a multibillion-dollar deal to lease Ukrainian farmland for 50 years, and Kiev has been one of China’s more reliable providers of military hardware.

So there is a double dilemma for China, since it can’t afford to side either with Washington, Brussels and Kiev, nor with Moscow. In this context Beijing is trying to remain neutral, calling both sides to respect international law. But would it be possible for China to keep its neutrality if Crimea votes for re-joining Russia? It seems that Chinese authorities would have rather tough time. Decisions, decisions…

Irina Sukhoparova, RT

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.