China and the World

Russian roulette

Beijing walks diplomatic tightrope over Ukraine


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Until very recently China’s position on Russia’s increasingly tense stand-off with Ukraine was relatively clear.

“China does not interfere in Ukraine’s internal affairs, respects the independent choice made by the Ukrainian people… and stands ready to foster strategic partnership with the Ukrainian side on an equal footing for win-win progress,” said foreign ministry spokeswomen Hua Chunying on February 24, shortly after news that the Russian-leaning President Victor Yanukovych had been toppled.

Three days later, however, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is believed to have sent troops into the Crimean peninsula, saying that he reserves the right to deploy them in the rest of Ukraine if Russian interests are threatened.

The problem for China is that Russia is one of its closer allies but that Moscow’s actions violate a principle the two governments have loudly upheld – that of non-interference in the internal affairs of other sovereign nations (both have made this plain in their attitude to Syria’s conflict).

Over the following days China’s official position lost clarity, culminating in a statement on Tuesday.

“We uphold the principle of non-interference in others’ internal affairs and respect international law… Meanwhile we also take into account the historical facts and realistic complexity of the Ukrainian issue. You may also analyse why the situation in Ukraine is what it is today based on the activities and the behaviour of relevant parties in the past months.”

So had Russia asked for diplomatic cover? It seemed so on Monday when the foreign ministry issued a statement saying that Moscow and Beijing were in “broad agreement” over events in the Ukraine. However, when the foreign ministry then announced that Xi and Putin had spoken by phone, the language was vague. Xi had told Putin that he hoped Russia “can coordinate with all parties concerned, to push for the political settlement of the issue so as to safeguard peace”.

China knows that if it throws its full diplomatic weight behind Russia it will be accused of hypocrisy in condoning intervention in another country’s affairs. But it also risks jeopardising a series of strategic investments made in Ukraine over the last year. Despite rumours that the Chinese were seeking to recoup one such investment – a $3 billion loan scheduled to be paid back in grain – there was little sign that Beijing wants anything other than to move forward with these deals (they also include the construction of a deep-water port in the Crimean peninsula and a tie-up with the Ukrainians to acquire fighter-jet engines).

“I don’t see that this development is likely to change China’s investment policy very much,” Rana Mitter, professor of the history and politics of modern China at Oxford University, told the Financial Times.  “China’s major issue these days is to encourage other countries to serve its security and trade interests, not to pay much attention to the form of those governments per se.”

But elements of the Chinese media took a stronger line, siding with the Russians.

“Russia is resisting the eastward trend of Western forces in Ukraine, which is important not only to its own fate but also to China’s strategic interests,” the Global Times said, before adding that  “China’s public opinion can condemn the West’s interference in Ukraine.”

The People’s Daily was in a punchy mood too, accusing the West of being locked in a “Cold War mentality” adding that “some Western people are still imbued with resentment towards Russia”.

But as China walks its precarious line – neither condemning nor fully endorsing Russian behaviour – the situation in the Ukraine may also open up some opportunities for Beijing to impose itself on the wider international stage.

As the Global Times put it: “Diplomatically, China can stick to its neutral policy but slightly favour Russia, a position which will be accepted by many countries and will pave the way for China to play a mediating role.”

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