The recent media and policy debates on the Russia-Ukraine crisis have focused primarily on perspectives of the West versus Russia. Russia’s position appears as that of an isolated mad man, with its aggression towards Ukraine inciting vast reprisals from the United States and the European Union. Russian official sources, however, say Russia is not alone, claiming to have secured China’s support.
The analysis of China’s official statements and media reports on Ukraine puts this claim in doubt. China has thus far attempted to strike a balance by acknowledging the crisis without directly criticizing Russia’s moves. Rather than championing Russia’s cause, China has favored ambiguity. Its stance on Ukraine is largely a product of complex relations between China, Russia and the United States, as well as the importance of China’s domestic objectives in directing its international engagements. Russia should not count on China for a more direct support on Ukraine and neither should the international community expect China to become an active mediator. China is most likely to remain a passive observer.
China’s official statements note its respect for Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty and non-interference into its internal affairs. The Foreign Ministry and China’s ambassador to the UN, Liu Jieyi, expressed concern for the crisis and urged all parties involved to adhere to international law and dialogue in resolving it. In a phone call with Vladimir Putin on Tuesday night, Xi Jinping stressed China’s support for international peace-making efforts. The focus on territorial sovereignty and international mediation brings China closer to the position of the West in dealing with Ukraine than to that of Russia. At the same time, editorials in China’s official press demonstrate an implicit support for Russia. An editorial in Huanqiu Shibao, for instance, states that “whatever happens, China’s priority is not to let Russia down,” while another opinion piece in the influential People’s Daily urges the West to abandon its Cold War mentality towards Russia. China did not endorse Russia’s actions in Crimea, but its critique of Ukraine’s recent uprising and its democratic processes more broadly, stands in line with Russia’s position. “Up until a few days ago, Ukraine’s opposition revolt, sustained by the West, used unconstitutional tactics to drive out the popularly elected president, Yanukovich,” writes one editorial. Others refer to Ukraine’s political situation as chaotic and treat protesters as trouble-makers. This line closely parallels that used by Putin in his recent press conference explaining his stance on Ukraine. Chinese media also portray Ukraine’s evolving democratic process as largely unsuccessful. One commentator compared Ukraine’s democratization to that of “a woman who suffers a miscarriage every time she becomes pregnant, inciting fear in others.” Characterizing Ukraine’s political system as a failure is yet another popular rhetoric of the Russian regime.
China, therefore, appears to be taking one step towards the international stance on Ukraine, while the other towards supporting Russia’s position. As a result, China has not played an active role in facilitating the resolution of the crisis and is unlikely to do so in the future.
Some analysts suggest China’s cautiousness is in large part a result of its economic stakes in Ukraine, but they are unlikely to be at the heart of the matter. The widely talked about bilateral agricultural deal, with China allegedly buying up to five percent of Ukraine’s arable land, is yet to be confirmed. China is interested in Ukraine’s arable land, but thus far, it is looking at future potential rather at losing its existing investments in the country. The bilateral trade of $7.3 billion is also incomparable to China’s trade with other major partners. For comparison, China’s trade with Russia is expected to reach $100 billion this year and its trade with the United States exceeded $500 billion in 2013, according to China’s official reports. So while China has become the second largest trade partner for Ukraine, Ukraine is a much less significant economic partner for China. This means that Ukraine will be likely more concerned with securing China’s future investments than the other way around. Moreover, if Russia were to maintain more dominance in Ukraine, it wouldn’t necessarily affect China’s economic opportunities there. Economics, therefore, might just serve as a convenient excuse for Chinese officials in defending their concern for Ukraine’s stability.
Remaining as neutral as possible on this conflict is a way for China to escape tensions with its two important partners, Russia and the United States. Openly criticizing Russia would jeopardize the Sino-Russian strategic relationship and a generally collaborative approach towards international crises. Xi Jinping has made several symbolic gestures in support of closer China-Russia relations. He picked Russia for his first foreign visit and was one of the few top leaders to attend the Sochi Olympics opening ceremony. China’s academic and official sources stress collaborative ties and welcome Russia’s more active involvement in Asia-Pacific, as a possible counterweight to the US. Showing at least some understanding for the Russian position on Ukraine, therefore, is needed for the Chinese leadership.
At the same time, openly supporting Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine would cause unwelcome tensions with the United States, just as the two countries are working towards building a new type of major-power relationship, based on cooperation and mutual gain. Given the recent escalation over the Diaoyu Islands dispute, China might be unwilling to further test the limits of the US reactions. Despite closer Sino-Russian ties in recent years, China is still more deeply concerned about its relations with the United States, seeing it as its most significant bilateral relationship, and would not imperil them by strongly favoring Russia’s position.
Even more significant, however, are domestic constraints playing into China’s position on Ukraine. China is always watchful of democratic revolts, as it seeks to maintain domestic stability. The critique of the Ukrainian protest movement and its democratic system is a message for domestic audiences not to entertain the thought of similar uprisings. The official messages about Ukraine strongly resemble those written about other protest movements in the Middle East and North Africa. The key point is that they are messy and undesirable. China’s primary concern for preserving state sovereignty also reflects its own domestic agenda, as it continues to struggle in containing ethnic separatism. The recent mass stabbing incident at a train station in Yunnan , which authorities labeled as an act of terrorism, makes the party-state especially wary of any radical movements challenging its hold on power. Its ongoing struggle to contain ethnic separatism might also make it more sympathetic to Ukraine’s cause of maintaining territorial unity and staving off external interference. Finally, while the events in Ukraine have been unfolding, China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) has been debating the future economic reform. Given the painful economic restructuring likely to be enacted in the near future, China’s leadership is more focused on domestic developments than on asserting its position in thorny international conflicts.
It is easy to dismiss China’s preference for ambiguity as predictable, given its long-standing view on territorial integrity and its general avoidance of direct involvement in international conflicts. China’s stance on Ukraine, and especially the reasoning behind its cautiousness, however, is quite telling about its evolving international behaviour under the new leadership. First, under significant pressure, China’s relationship with Russia does not exhibit that of a long-standing partnership. China will not unilaterally support Russia when it goes against its international and domestic interests. This means that Sino-Russia collission is unlikely. The US should treat it as an important relationship, but not as one directly threatening to its interests in Asia or more globally. Second, in striving to establish itself as a global super power, China will be continuously limited by its domestic considerations. While the new Chinese leaders exhibit a more assertive global outlook, it will be a challenge for them to balance their interests and resources between domestic political and economic challenges and recurrent international crises. When faced with international issues, not directly affecting China’s domestic development, China will stick to inactive involvement. Some have argued in favor of a more active role for China as a mediator in the Ukrainian crisis. China is likely to forgo this opportunity to showcase global leadership and to settle for focusing on domestic priorities at hand.