In the Battle for Crimea, China Wins

How Beijing stands to gain from Russia's invasion of Ukraine.


Awkward does not begin to describe it. Every time Beijing has been asked for its view on the Russian intervention in Ukraine, it has fallen back on tortuous formulations. On March 2, the day after Russian troops started fanning out across Crimea, the Chinese Foreign Ministry noted: "There is a good reason for why events in Ukraine have progressed to where they are today." On March 3, Liu Jieyi, China’s permanent representative to the United Nations, said "there are reasons for why the situation in Ukraine is what it is today." Later in the week, while the U.N. Security Council was locked in debate over Ukraine, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang declared: "There are reasons for today’s situation in Ukraine."

So, that’s clear, then.

It is not hard to understand why China feels itself in a tight spot over the situation in Ukraine, where Russia has responded to the collapse of the presidency of its ally Viktor Yanukovych in late February and the formation of a new, pro-Western government by exerting Russian military control over the Crimean peninsula. One of the basic tenets of Chinese foreign policy is non-interference in the domestic business of other countries, which provides a barrier against their meddling in its own affairs and a way of floating above some of the world’s more difficult trouble spots without getting sucked into messy political disputes or taking on new responsibilities. China is also allergic to separatist movements within countries. If Crimea can be allowed to vote for independence, why not Tibet?

China and Russia may have been estranged during the latter part of the Cold War, and only resolved their own tense border issues in 2008, but the two nations have long found common cause over the issue of state sovereignty. For the last decade, Russia and China have often tag-teamed at the U.N. to block Western busybodies from getting involved in smaller countries’ internal crises. In the 2000s, when China was defending Sudan against Western criticism over Darfur, Russia provided political cover. Over the last three years, China has backed up Russia in its efforts to keep the U.N. from pressuring the Assad regime in Syria. Yet, today, China’s usual partner in defending the inviolability of state sovereignty is the very country whose troops are now controlling Crimea.

And a prolonged crisis in the Ukraine could be bad for the global economy, especially if there are sanctions and counter-sanctions between Russia and the West, just at a time when China’s own economy is slowing. No wonder China’s responses have been so convoluted.

Yet behind the equivocations and diplomatic parsing, there are several ways in which the Ukraine crisis could work out very well for China. In terms of both grand strategy and tactics, the showdown in Ukraine has the potential to play into China’s hands.

For the United States, one of the big long-term risks is that Ukraine ends up pushing Russia and China much closer together — a shift in the geopolitical tectonic plates that would have a long-lasting impact. Sensing itself under pressure in Asia over the last two years, Beijing has been casting around for political support. The first foreign trip that Xi Jinping made on taking over as China’s president in March 2013 was to Moscow. And since he returned to office nearly two years ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin has been happy to play nice with China as he indulges his anti-Western posturing. In October, the two countries signed a large number of energy deals, including an agreement for Russia to supply $85 billion of oil; after years of talks, they are also getting close to an agreement on a major gas pipeline. Beyond the booming business ties, both countries believe that chipping away at the foundations of U.S. power serves their interests.  

One of Washington’s long-term geopolitical priorities should be driving a wedge between Moscow and Beijing, to prevent the development of a stronger relationship. Yet an Obama administration campaign to isolate Russia economically and diplomatically would almost certainly invite Putin to look to Beijing for political support. Dmitri Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest in Washington, has even predicted that the Ukraine crisis could lead to China and Russia signing a security agreement.

At a more mundane level, the Ukraine crisis also means that U.S. President Barack Obama is almost inevitably going to have less time to devote to his Asia pivot — his strategy for dealing with a rising China. After much fanfare on its launch in 2011, including Obama’s announcement that the United States "is here to stay" in the Pacific during a trip to Australia, there has been plenty of criticism in the region that the administration has been distracted by the fire-fighting it has been doing in the Middle East. John Kerry has traveled five times to the region since becoming secretary of state in Feb. 2013, but he has made more than double that number of trips to the Middle East during the same period. The cancellation of Obama’s October 2013 Asia trip because of the government shut-down was a major own-goal. For months, the Chinese have been telling their neighbors that the unreliable United States has once again become less interested in the region.

In the weeks before the Russian intervention in Crimea, the administration has been consciously trying to up its game in Asia, ahead of Obama’s April visit to Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines. In February, Danny Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asia, said China had "created uncertainty, insecurity and instability in the region" by its behavior in the South China Sea. Yet if Russia annexes Crimea, and is seen to not pay too high a price, some in China will take that as a green light to push their own territorial claims even harder. If Putin can call the West’s bluff, what’s to stop China?

That said, there is nothing inevitable about a closer Sino-Russian alliance. As China’s influence grows, Russia could end up seeing Beijing as much as a rival as a partner. Putin’s Crimea incursion is motivated by his desire to protect Russia’s sphere of influence to its west, where it feels under threat from Europe. But he is also intent on maintaining Russian influence in Central Asia, where China is the long-term challenger. Over the last five years, Chinese presence in Central Asia has increased dramatically, the product of huge energy deals, extensive oil and gas pipelines, and financial support. During Xi’s September visit to Kazakhstan — the Central Asian nation that is also part of Putin’s Eurasian Union — he opened a new natural gas pipeline to China, formalized a $5 billion Chinese investment in the project, and signed business deals worth $30 billion. Russia’s southeast flank is just as vulnerable as its western one.

Russia also worries about Chinese migration into eastern Siberia and about Chinese naval intentions in the northern Pacific and Arctic region. Even as Moscow and Beijing have been growing closer over the last two years, Russia has also been improving ties with Japan and they have been holding quiet talks over Pacific Ocean islands disputed by both countries.

The power dynamics of China and Russia are also very different. China’s ambitions are those of a great power on the rise: the Crimea takeover is the lashing out of a leader trying to hang on to some leverage in Ukraine that is rapidly disappearing. The last thing Putin wants it to play second fiddle to Xi, the way Britain does to the United States.

But overall, the situation looks promising for Beijing. Even if the situation in Ukraine is resolved relatively quickly and U.S. relations with Russia do not completely fall apart, Obama will now spend a lot more of his time in office focusing on Europe; trying to boost the relationship with Germany and reassuring allies in Eastern Europe who have felt neglected. The administration will claim it can manage all these issues, but top-level attention to Asia will drop. The pivot will suffer as a result of Ukraine — and that, among other things, is a win for Beijing, even if you would not realize it from the tortured way China talks about the crisis.  

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