Days after Ukraine’s deposed President Viktor Yanukovych fled his Kiev palace, an unassuming, mid-level Chinese diplomat appeared before the United Nations Security Council to highlight Beijing’s support for the new pro-Western government, marking a rare diplomatic split from Moscow.
"We respect the choice made by the Ukrainian people on the basis of national conditions," Shen Bo, a counselor at China’s U.N. mission said in a Feb. 24 statement that went largely unnoticed by the international press.
China and U.N. watchers say Beijing’s refusal to blindly follow Moscow’s lead during the Ukrainian crisis reflects a deep-seated anxiety about the path that Russian President Vladimir Putin has chosen to pursue.
"China has a pathological fear of other countries meddling in its internal affairs, and to witness Russia so blatantly intervening in Ukraine has to be a source of consternation," Elizabeth Economy, a China specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, told Foreign Policy in an email exchange. "Russia’s actions clearly run up against China’s central foreign policy tenet of non-interference in others’ internal affairs. It is a policy that has guided Chinese policy in North Korea, Sudan, Iran and Syria. If it were to upend this principle, it would reflect a seminal change in Chinese foreign policy and leave China much weaker in defense of its inaction in other crisis situations."
Still, Shen’s comments about Ukraine reflect a significant shift for Beijing. China and Russia have been among the Security Council’s steadiest of allies, standing shoulder to shoulder as a counterbalance to the West’s big three — the United States, Britain, and France — who have dominated Security Council business for much of the past two decades. Moscow and Beijing share a suspicion that the West’s big powers seek to use the Security Council to promote their own interests in foreign countries under the guise of promoting democracy and human rights.
Together, Beijing and Moscow have cast their vetoes to quash efforts by George W. Bush’s administration to condemn human rights violations by governments in Myanmar and Zimbabwe. More recently, China risked the ire of the Arab world by joining Russia in vetoing three resolutions aimed at curtailing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s brutal campaign of violence.
But the Russian intervention in Crimea has not sat well with a country that has significant commercial interests in Ukraine, and which has long been uneasy about Russia’s propensity for using military force to pressure its neighbors. Beijing fears that the use of military force against a sovereign nation sets a precedent that could one day be used against China.
In earlier eras, China objected to the Brezhnev Doctrine, which was used to justify Russian invasions of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979, on the grounds that it constituted unwarranted interference in the affairs of a sovereign nation. China also broke with Russia after it intervened in neighboring Georgia in 2008 and stripped the pro-Western government of its provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In June 2009, Moscow vetoed a U.N. resolution authorizing the continued presence of nearly 150 U.N. peacekeepers in Georgia, effectively killing off a U.N. effort to monitor Georgia’s border with the separatist territory. China abstained from the vote.
On Tuesday, Putin briefed his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, on events unfolding in Ukraine. Xi spared Putin the kinds of public scolding and threats of repercussions issued in recent weeks by American and European officials. But he didn’t take Putin’s side. On the contrary, Xi urged Putin not to go it alone, hinting that Moscow should look more favorably on international mediation efforts, according to a statement.
"At present, the situation in Ukraine is highly complicated and sensitive and has regional and global impact," Xi told him, according to a read out of the conversation published by Xinhua, the state-run news agency. "China believes that Russia can coordinate with other parties to push for the political settlement of the issue so as to safeguard regional and world peace and stability. China supports proposals and mediation efforts of the international community that are conducive to reduction of tension."
Edward Luck, a historian of U.N. affairs who began his scholarly career as a Soviet specialist, said the Ukraine crisis underscores the limits of the partnership between Russia and China. As China emerges as a true global powerhouse, its interests have grown more complex, he said, requiring it to act more nimbly in a world where its allies come into conflict. Russia, meanwhile, remains primarily focused on its stature in its own neighborhood.
"I don’t think that China sees its position in the world as fundamentally depending on Russian support," Luck told FP. "It’s playing a game on a much higher plane, a really global game. Russia is still stuck very much within its own borders and periphery; and that is what matters first and foremost to Russia. China is a dominant power and Russia is a secondary one, and why should China have to bend over backward again to cover the Russian flank? What do they get from it?"
Indeed, China has invested heavily in Ukraine, reportedly signing a deal in the fall of 2012 guaranteeing Kiev would export 300 million tons of corn each year to China in exchange for access to more than $3 billion in loans. Another more recent report indicates that two Chinese state-owned companies will operate a massive swath of farmland the size of Belgium in the eastern region of Dnipropetrovsk, planting crops and raising pigs for consumption back home.
"I think it is easy to exaggerate the importance of the Chinese-Russian alliance; I don’t think they have a relationship that you could describe as strategic," Luck said. "It veers from one case to another. We should remember the Soviet-Chinese competition has some legacy and some hangover."