Talking Point

The Putin paradox

China ponders how to respond to Russian intervention in Ukraine

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Action man: Chinese admire Putin’s guts and daring

The monks of the Shaolin monastery are known as near-invincible kungfu fighters. But when Vladimir Putin visited Shaolin eight years ago, Li Zhaoxing was worried. Might the Russian leader try to put one of them in a headlock, China’s former foreign minister wondered?

According to Li’s memoirs, Putin’s hosts were concerned that the Russian president, an accomplished martial artist, might take his chance to challenge one of the monks to combat. So there were nervous moments as the former KGB man strode out to meet the Shaolin students.

There was no need to worry. As Li describes it, Putin picked out an eight year-old novice, “threw the little monk skywards and landed him perfectly on his shoulders”. The Chinese media loved the encounter and it was soon being reported.

The stunt at Shaolin was typical of Putin playing to the crowd. China’s own president Xi Jinping –despite being much more animated than his predecessor Hu Jintao – is dull by comparison. Xi might profess his love for football and make the occasional visit to noodle shops. But he can’t compete with Putin’s bare-chested horse rides and dramatic plunges into Siberian lakes.

This action man image generates animated responses from some of Putin’s Chinese fans, like the lovelorn glances from Dong Qing, a well-known host on state broadcaster CCTV.

“Putin is the person that I admire most,” she confided three years ago. “He has eyes like an eagle; a strong and upright posture; he seems cool and proud but he smiles like the sunshine. Even the way he walks is full of masculinity. The men who grab my attention are people like him, full of power.”

Plenty of ordinary Chinese feel the same way. As one netizen put it: “I admire Putin. Inside his country he cares about the ordinary people. Outside, he is tough. He is not a tyrant – when his teacher died, his behaviour was so touching. He is a real man: tough but with tenderness.”

Another expressed his respect for a man “well versed in both literature and military affairs”.

Russia’s intervention in Ukraine has drawn Putin back into the spotlight with his Chinese audience. But it is also putting Beijing into an awkward position as it ponders how best to respond diplomatically to the crisis. Putin is usually looked upon as a potential ally for the Chinese, but could he also become something of an annoyance?

So the Chinese press is positive about Russia’s president?

The Western media mocks Putin’s strongman style, especially its shirtless moments. But in the Chinese press his vigour is seen more as a sign of strength, inspiring a slew of cover stories. The contrasting media treatment was evident again in Sochi before the Winter Olympics, as Adam Minter reported for Bloomberg in January, when Putin gave interviews to foreign journalists including CCTV. While the Western reporters tried to bring up allegations of corruption or Russian legislation restricting gay “propaganda”, the Chinese interviewer was much more respectful of his Russian host. “You are very popular,” presenter Shui Junyi advised in his opening line of enquiry. “Before my coming here I said to our internet users that I was going to Russia to interview you. And as soon as I published the message two million users put an ‘I like it’ mark next to it and sent in many questions.”

Few of these queries turned out to be terribly taxing, Minter noted, including one stage-managed enquiry about some of the threats from other countries to boycott the Games in Sochi.

“Why do such voices appear when a country is developing?” the CCTV newshound wondered aloud. “For instance: China is developing; Russia is developing. What do you think, maybe these are manifestations of the ‘cold war’?”

Putin seized his chance to respond. “Some old approaches towards Russia still exist from the perspective that there is a need to restrain something,” he explained. That same kind of mentality had been “switched on” to hold China back too, he also thought.

Does that mean that Beijing backs Moscow’s action in Ukraine?

This was the early suggestion from the Russians, who claimed “broadly coinciding views” between the foreign ministers of the two countries after a telephone call about the crisis on March 3.

But China’s support for Russian intervention isn’t so clear-cut. Foreign analysts have struggled to identify a definitive position from a series of vague and ambiguous statements – typified by comments attributed to Xi that the Ukrainian crisis “among elements of chance, had elements of inevitability”.

Beijing’s preference has been to answer questions indirectly, avoid taking sides and urge all parties to come to political agreement.

One of its consideration is probably how best to preserve its commercial interests in Ukraine. Kiev signed initial agreements last year to lease 9% of its arable land to state giant Xinjiang Production and Construction Corp in exchange for infrastructure investment (see WiC192 for more on XPCC). The Ukrainians also provide China with military hardware and sold Beijing its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning.

This need to protect commercial ties may have contributed to China’s decision to acknowledge the change in government in Ukraine more quickly than it might have done in the past, says David Cohen in the Jamestown Foundation’s China Brief. Just two days after former president Victor Yanukovych had fled, China had announced that it respected “the independent choice made by the Ukrainian people”. This was different to the Arab Spring uprisings, Cohen says, when Beijing backed incumbent regimes as they were collapsing and then had to shore up relations with the new governments.

How about the principle of non-interference in other countries?

Beijing claims that its stance on Russian action in Ukraine is consistent with its previous policy, reiterating that it is China’s “long-standing position not to interfere in others’ internal affairs”.

This principle of non-interference has been employed frequently in the past, with objections to United Nations efforts to force Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait, opposition to NATO’s action against Yugoslavia in Kosovo, and various refusals to support international action in crisis situations from Sudan to Syria.

For some observers that means that China is now in an awkward position, possibly uncomfortable about the implications of appearing to accept Russia’s intervention in a sovereign state but unwilling to say so directly and risk a rift with Moscow.

Instead there’s been an effort to reframe the debate with more of a focus on why others should be shouldering more responsibility for what’s been going on.

“We uphold the principle of non-interference in others’ internal affairs and respect international law and widely recognised norms governing international relations,” the foreign ministry insisted on March 4. “Meanwhile we take into account the historical facts and realistic complexity of the Ukrainian issue. You may also analyse why the situation is what it is today based on the activities and behaviours of relevant parties in the past months.”

State news agency Xinhua was more direct. “The West’s strategy for installing a so-called democratic and pro-Western Ukrainian government did not get anywhere at all. On the contrary, they have created a mess they do not have the capacity or wisdom to clean up,” it trumpeted.

“For the rest of the world, once again, people see another great country torn apart because of a clumsy and selfish West that boasts too many lofty ideals but always comes up short of practical solutions.”

Other newspapers seemed to move away from non-interference in sovereign affairs too. If the principle was at risk it was because other countries had created the problem, the Global Times proposed. Anyway, its preference was to focus more on power than principle, implying that realpolitik should be driving the response to the crisis on Russia’s borders. “Some think China’s policy of non-interference will be tested in this matter, and that if China supports Russia, it will become ensnared in a diplomatic trap. This is the mentality of the weak…. If Russia led by Putin is defeated by the West it will deal a heavy blow to China’s geopolitical interests,” the editorial concluded.

Nonetheless there were signs last Sunday that Washington is trying to appeal to China’s traditional instincts on the sovereignty issue, as Obama talked directly to Xi in a bid to rally more support. The White House then issued a statement that the two leaders “agreed on the importance of upholding principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, both in the context of Ukraine and also for the broader functioning of the international system”.

Others think that Washington should try to split Beijing and Moscow by focusing on the separatist instincts of the Russian-speaking community in the Crimea. Of course, China is home to ethnic minorities too, some of which would like to split from Beijing (a terrorist attack in Kunming’s railway station two weekends ago being a case in point).

But Ken Lieberthal, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a former adviser to Bill Clinton, says that the Chinese will prefer to prevaricate about the Ukrainian crisis for as long as they can (“sitting on the fencepost”, he told Associated Press).

“What we’re seeing in China’s statements very much reflects the major — and in this instance, conflicting — interests the Chinese leadership has,” Lieberthal said.

How strong are Sino-Russian ties?

Both countries share a pragmatic alliance in wanting the other to act as a bulwark against Western influence. Russia is contesting what it sees as encroachment into Ukraine, while China frets that Washington is trying to contain its “peaceful rise” through the “pivot” of American military and diplomatic power in the Pacific.

Both countries are also scornful about the legacy of political and social instability from “democratic promotion” by the West – the Arab Spring is a recent example – says Xiang Lanxin, a professor of international relations.

Both bridle at what they see as double standards too, Xiang told the South China Morning Post – even a military coup against an elected government in Egypt has been hailed as a victory for democracy by some in the West.

The two leaders have also made a concerted effort to strengthen personal relations since Xi came to office. He travelled to Moscow eight days after becoming president last year and the two have met on six occasions since then (Putin hammed it up for Time Weekly in January in telling how Xi was an old friend with a similar taste for vodka and sandwiches).

Xi also travelled to Sochi last month, the first time that a Chinese head of state has attended a major international sports event outside China, and according to RIA Novosti, the Russian news agency, Putin has five meetings scheduled with Xi this year, presumably to strengthen what Xinhua has described as a “paragon” of diplomatic relations on the world stage.

Xi was similarly positive in an interview on Russian television at the beginning of February, saying that relations with Moscow were at their “most solid foundation” and that the two countries were enjoying “the highest level of mutual trust and the greatest regional and global influence ever”.

But there are limits to the alliance?

A common gripe is that Moscow hasn’t shown much support for China in its own territorial wrangles in Asia.

“One thing for sure is that China has no responsibility to support Putin,” a disgruntled contributor told Phoenix.com last week. “In the disputes with the Philippines or Japan in the South and East China Seas, he hasn’t backed China at all.”

Maybe Xi will try to use events in Ukraine to secure more support from Putin in China’s various disputes in Asia. There is also frustration that the Russians haven’t signed off on longstanding negotiations on natural resource contracts, or that they sometimes seem happier to sell arms to Beijing’s regional rivals than to China itself.

Ma Dingsheng, a major general in the People’s Liberation Army, made similar observations on huanqiu.com, a news website, last year.

“I don’t understand why the Chinese people love Putin,” he wrote. “In my opinion he uses us when he needs us. If he is really so good to China, why have the oil negotiations lasted more than 10 years? He’s also sold the most advanced weapons to Vietnam and India but won’t agree to sell them to China. He won’t do business with us and he is always looking for the biggest benefits for Russia. That is who he is: the president of Russia, not our friend.”

The leadership in Beijing will also be wary of looking weak in comparison to Putin, especially among more nationalistic Chinese who want to see more forceful foreign policy.

“China is a paper tiger,” moaned one contributor to Tianya.com, one of the country’s largest online forums. “In Mao’s time we were weak in military power but at least we had backbone… Today China is a much stronger country but we’ve become a turtle, retracting our head into our shell all the time. That’s humiliating. How can the Chinese people not love Putin?”

Another manifestation of this militant mood is the fenqing: millions of internet-savvy “angry youth” who respond furiously to perceived slights to China’s national pride (see WiC9 for an early mention of this group), often demanding an aggressive response from their government.

Global People, a foreign affairs magazine published by the People’s Daily highlighted similar frustrations last year, after the foreign ministry admitted that a soldier from Nanjing had sent it calcium tablets through the post. The message was that Chinese diplomats must grow more of a spine and the accompanying editorial warned that other Chinese have grown weary of Deng Xiaoping’s maxim that China should “hide its strength and bide its time”.

But some of the other Chinese compliments for Putin will have his critics scratching their heads, especially the claims from netizens that he has won the battle against corruption or helped ordinary Russians by destroying the monopolies enjoyed by the country’s biggest corporations. Here, the suspicion is that some Chinese are projecting frustrations with their own political elite. There was a further example on Tianya.com in claims that Putin could stand up to the Americans since they had no personal leverage over him. “He hasn’t made money from his political power,” it argued. “He hasn’t transferred a fortune to overseas accounts or sent his family to live in a foreign country. Look at China’s officials. Are they as clean as Putin? They’ve sent their relatives to the United States and transferred their wealth to the United Kingdom. Can they still say no to the US and UK?”

Clearly, there’s a possibility that Putin’s adventurism is going to deepen some of this fascination with his bolder style. But in the meantime Xi and his colleagues will look on more cautiously, probably hoping that the praise shows signs of cooling off.

And in doing so they might want to have a word with some of Putin’s fans in the Chinese broadcasting ranks, including the CCTV’s Shui, who delighted in a post-interview photo with his hero in Sochi.

“What sport do you perform worst at yourself?” he had asked the Russian president in another of his searching questions. But then he was back to the flattery. “In general, is there anything in the world that you don’t know how to do?” he mused. “It seems that you have mastered everything.”


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