Conflict in Georgia Threatens Chinese Neutrality

No one likes to see a fight ruin their party. But that's what happened to China recently when its efforts to stage a feel-good Olympics risked being spoiled by the mayhem in Georgia. As fireworks burst over the Bird's Nest stadium during the opening ceremonies, bombs were raining down on the Caucasus.

There was a time when China might have looked on with pleasure as its two great rivals, Russia and the United States, went toe-to-toe. No longer, as Beijing's low-key response suggests. President Hu Jintao met with both Russia's Vladimir Putin and America's George W. Bush as the games began without saying a word about the bloodshed, and the Foreign Ministry stuck to anodyne clichés, expressing "grave concern" and calling for a ceasefire. This tentative language reflects the fact that the conflict has presented China with several awkward problems.

To start, it confronts this avowedly neutral nation with an ugly choice over whom to side with: the United States or Russia—a choice China doesn't want to make. Russia's support for the breakaway regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, like U.S. support for Kosovo's independence earlier this year, crosses China's diplomatic red line, designed to outlaw meddlesome questions about Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang. A resurgent Russia could also try to assert greater authority over the Central Asian states China has lately sought to cultivate through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). And the prospect of a new cold war could undermine institutions like the U.N. Security Council, on which Beijing has come to depend. Thus China "desperately wants this crisis to be resolved," says Prof. Rana Mitter of Oxford University. But there's no sign of that happening soon.

Start with the separatist precedent. China is hypersensitive to such claims; recall the fury with which Beijing—and ordinary Chinese—reacted to pro-Tibet protests during the Olympic torch relay, or the outrage meted out to the Icelandic singer Bjork after she shouted "Tibet, Tibet" during a Shanghai concert earlier this year. "Territorial sovereignty is [China's] unbreakable bottom line in international relations," says Mitter.

As for multilateral institutions, China relies on these for the same reason it hosted the Games: to regain global legitimacy and respect. Blessed by history with permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, Beijing, after years of ambivalence, has recently become an enthusiastic player in the body. "China has done very well in the past five or six years by positioning itself as a sort of honest broker in the international community," says Mitter. It's also become a make-or-break player in the World Trade Organization (WTO). A new cold war could weaken the "global institutions where China would like to exercise greater power, " such as by joining an expanded G8, says Oksana Antonenko of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London.

Worse, such a cold war would force Beijing to take sides, and that's anathema to China's grand strategy. Hu's concept of a "peaceful rise" stresses the economy over ideology and emphasizes maintaining pragmatic relations with everyone, quietly building China's power without rocking boats. Beijing's silence over Georgia thus far reflects this status-quo approach; China prefers a world in which major powers "don't touch each other's red lines," says Xia Yishan of China's International Studies Institute, a Foreign Ministry think tank.

Then there's the question of Central Asia. China is most likely to feel the impact of a newly assertive Russia in the six nation Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which was founded in 2001 to curb U.S. influence in the region. (The other members are Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan; India, Iran, Mongolia, and Pakistan are observers.) China and Russia have used the SCO to help resolve border disputes, organize joint military exercises and stimulate the creation of energy and transportation infrastructure. China relies on the Central Asian states for oil (especially Kazakhstan) and to fight terrorism by suppressing Islamist politics that could gather support in Xinjiang. If these former Soviet republics absorb the lesson of Georgia by showing greater compliance to Moscow, China could find itself stuck in an alliance being pushed in directions that unnerve its other allies.

Putin could signal his next move soon. Hu risks being upstaged by Putin yet again, this time at the August 28 SCO summit in Tajikistan. World leaders will scrutinize the SCO's final communiqué carefully for signs that Russia is trying to push the seven-year-old group in a more belligerent, anti-American direction. Hu is a keen Ping-Pong player who may find himself out-wrestled by Putin, a judo champ who's shown he's unlikely to offer a sportsmanlike truce or stick to a polite back-and-forth across the table.