Ukraine: Why Is China Sitting on the Fence?

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and China’s President Xi Jinping Mast Irham/Pool/Reuters

On the day Russia officially annexed Crimea, President Vladimir Putin thanked his allies. “We are grateful to the people of China, whose leaders have always, when considering the situation in Ukraine and Crimea, taken into account the full historical and political context,” Putin said.

A day earlier, a senior White House official was telling a very different story.

Pointing to China’s abstention on a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the Crimean referendum, he said, “In terms of who’s isolated here, the United States is leading a united international community in condemnation of this action, while Russia finds itself alone in insisting upon the legitimacy of their intervention in Ukraine.”

More than a month into the Ukraine crisis, which side is China on? Is Beijing maintaining its traditional alliance with Moscow, or has President Xi Jinping and the foreign ministry been won over to Washington’s side?

The answer, it seems, is none of the above.

As the two former Cold War superpowers engage in open diplomatic conflict over Ukraine, China—an ascendant superpower—is sitting firmly on the sidelines. Beijing has neither the interest nor the inclination to embroil itself in the politics surrounding a conflict half a world away, especially one that touches on some of its most sensitive issues, such as territorial integrity.

That doesn’t mean Xi and his associates in the Communist Party aren’t carefully watching how events play out in Crimea. And as events unfold, the sidelines might become an increasingly uncomfortable place to sit.

“The Chinese position is, Don’t throw away options if you don’t have to, but find a way to maintain that tap dance in between,” says Jonathan D. Pollack, a Brookings Institution expert on China’s foreign policy. “That’s easier said than done. But they’re very skilled at it.”

In recent years, Russia and China, which share a 2,000-mile-plus border, have become increasingly close. Xi’s first state visit was to Moscow, and trade ties have expanded. A set of lucrative energy contracts signed last October will pump $85 billion worth of Russian oil into an energy-hungry China over the next 10 years.

On diplomatic issues, Russia and China usually stand side by side, providing a unified front against Western intervention in matters ranging from Syria to Sudan. They purport to represent the rising powers in an increasingly multipolar world, with Russia usually playing the more aggressive partner.

But this time something different is happening. When the United States introduced on March 15 the resolution to the U.N. Security Council condemning Crimea’s referendum on secession from Ukraine, the two allies on the council were, for once, not in lockstep.

China didn’t go as far as voting against the resolution, but it did abstain. Russia vetoed the resolution.

The Chinese ambivalence was a slap in the face for the Kremlin. The U.S. and its allies quickly pointed to China’s indifference to highlight Moscow’s isolation.

Why did China remain aloof? The answer probably has more to do with China’s self-interest than concern for the well-being of Ukraine. In a March 2 statement, a Chinese foreign ministry representative said, “We respect the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

Independence, sovereignty and “territorial integrity” are important issues for China. And referendums are a particularly touchy subject for Beijing. Why? Taiwan. And Tibet.

“China’s core concern about a referendum anywhere in the world that relates to self-determination is the implications for such a referendum to be held in Taiwan,” says Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Since the Chinese civil war ended in 1949, when Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalist forces retreated to Taiwan ahead of Mao Zedong’s Communist Red Army, Beijing has insisted that the island belongs to mainland China, while Taiwan’s government claims sovereignty.

Similarly, China’s government has an unfavorable view of separatist movements because of the conflict in Tibet, which it annexed in 1950 and where ethnic Tibetans want to liberate themselves from Chinese rule. Seeing separatists succeed in breaking Crimea away from Ukraine raises unsettling parallels for China’s leadership in Beijing.

The Chineses tactic so far has been middle-of-the-road declarations calling for de-escalation in Ukraine and calling “on all parties to remain calm, exercise restraint and refrain from raising tension.” There is little chance that Beijing will join in the sanctions the West has imposed—or the retaliatory sanctions that Russia is considering imposing on the U.S. and the European Union.

While Beijing is playing it cool, there is no doubt that Xi is watching developments in Ukraine carefully. How the conflict unfolds will send signals about what may be possible closer to home.

There are disputes about maritime borders between China and Vietnam, the Philippines and other countries in the region. In recent years, the Chinese have attempted to assert their primacy in the seas, but so far without a major confrontation.

The Crimean conflict plays out in China’s domestic politics as well, according to Charles Kupchan, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Some more nationalistic constituencies within China may be asking, ‘Where’s our Putin? If the Russians can grab Crimea, why can’t we grab some of the islands that are in dispute with our neighbors?’ ”

Xi and his allies in Beijing will have to manage these bellicose sentiments carefully. “The Chinese leadership is riding the tiger of Chinese nationalism, and, often, popular sentiment runs ahead of elite sentiment,” says Kupchan.

Slowly and slyly, however, China is pressing its case. Unnoticed by most of the world, on March 10, as tensions were rising in Crimea, Chinese coast guard vessels expelled two ships flying the Filipino flag from the Second Thomas Shoal, one of the small islands in the South China Sea.

If Putin is seen to have gotten away with his land grab in Crimea, that could signal to the Chinese that unilateral actions can succeed.

“If the U.S. is seen as reluctant [to push back against Putin], then I think the Chinese think that creates more space for them to be more assertive, to use various tools at their disposal to try to assert their own interests,” says Glaser. “The South China Sea and East China Sea is where that could happen.”

What all of this means is that policymakers in Beijing are eyeing developments in Eastern Europe with a cautious eye—not wanting to encourage separatism or set precedents for how the world deals with breakaway regions, but also curious about what the new power configurations mean for their own interests.

As the crisis in Crimea heats up, though, China may have a harder time sitting on the sidelines. Xi and President Barack Obama are scheduled to meet March 24 at a summit on nuclear safety in The Hague. Russia and Crimea may not be the topic of the day, but Ukraine will inevitably be raised, and Obama will likely push China to put further pressure on its allies in Moscow.

And if Russia escalates the crisis by moving troops into Eastern Ukraine, halfhearted statements about “restraint” will be out of step with the rest of the world. But for now, from Beijing’s perspective it makes most sense to wait and see.

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