An unexpected harvest: China, Ukraine and the west

Putin’s endless adventurism and its ensuing condemnation have only veiled China’s quiet harvest. Kiev, Moscow and Washington are all being pushed closer to the powers that be in Beijing.

Gangzheng She
4 August 2014
Chinese New Year in Ukraine

Chinese New Year in Ukraine. Demotix/Roman Baluk. All rights reserved.

The downing of MH17 over eastern Ukraine not only horrified the world, but once again shifted attention back to Putin’s support for the rebels in this area. Not surprisingly, western countries, especially the United States, are pressing Russia over this disaster, while China stays quiet. The crisis in Ukraine has lasted since February, and the main battlefield has been shifted from Kiev, then to Crimea, and now to east Ukraine. While leaders of the western world have been accusing Russia of worsening the situation, China might reap an unexpected harvest from Putin’s seemingly endless adventure.

Let us turn back the clock. On 18 March, in his speech to the Duma announcing the annexation of Crimea, Vladimir Putin thanked China for “understanding” Russia’s actions in Ukraine. The Russian President declared: “We are grateful to the people of China, whose leadership sees the situation in Crimea in all its historical and political integrity.”

The western world was infuriated by Putin’s aggressive rhetoric, but it seems that no one paid attention to his grateful reference to China. Not a single Western leader has accused China of being Putin’s accomplice in annexing Crimea to Russia, or later in aiding the rebels in east Ukraine. However, Putin’s statement did cause huge repercussions within China. On Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, thousands of Chinese netizens called Putin’s gratitude “a slap in the face of the Chinese government”. Because China chose not to support but to abstain from the United Nations Security Council vote on the resolution condemning Russia, they claimed, Putin could easily bundle China with Russia in his duel against the West.

The pessimists also worried that those referendums which took place successively - first in Crimea and then in Donetsk and Luhansk - would provide impetus for secessionist activities in Taiwan, Tibet and other restive areas. The criticism that the Chinese government has received during the Ukraine crisis has been markedly domestic.

Nevertheless, others have been applauding China’s continuation of its non-interventionist rhetoric. Some argue that a clash between Russia and the west in Ukraine is not the worst case scenario for Beijing. As China's UN Ambassador Liu Jieyi reiterated Beijing's support for “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states”, Beijing expressed sympathy to Kiev, but what China did in the UN Security Council also lent tacit support to Moscow to further test the limits of the west.

It seems that a deadlock in Ukraine is the best outcome for China. First of all, China has a history of keeping good relations with rival political forces within Ukraine. Last December, the then President of Ukraine Viktor Yanukovych flew to Beijing and had a series of productive talks with his counterpart Xi Jinping. Although the widely circulated report that China promised to shelter Ukraine under its nuclear umbrella was later revealed as an exaggeration by the Chinese media, the two leaders did cement a “strategic partnership” between their countries. However, during the rule of pro-EU politicians such as Viktor Yushchenko and Yulia Tymoshenko from 2005 to 2010, Beijing also maintained effective communication with Kiev, and had no difficulty in purchasing advanced weapons systems from Ukraine. The latter even provoked criticism from Moscow, which claimed that such deals damaged the interests of those Russian defense companies in their negotiations with China.

Kiev has many motives to be on friendly terms with China, not only since Ukraine needs China to continue its investment in Ukraine’s agriculture and their armament cooperation, but also because there would be no benefits in displeasing another permanent member of the UN Security Council. It is quite understandable that Ukraine’s new government has already begun a charm offensive towards China, as Ukraine’s ambassador to China pledged to deepen ties with Beijing a day before the newly elected president Petro Poroshenko assumed office in Kiev.

As for Sino-Russian relations, a deadlock in Ukraine would only push Moscow closer to Beijing. The US has shown no signs of taking challenges from Moscow lying down, from President Obama’s announcement in this March of imposing sanctions on Russian banks and wealthy businessmen with close ties to Putin, to Secretary of State John Kerry’s call for European countries to be “more open to sanctions” after flight MH17, as he believed, was shot down “by the pro-Russian separatists”.

It is hardly surprising that, after so many years of bargaining, China and Russia eventually succeeded in signing a $400 billion 30-year gas deal in May, and the foreseeable future has a high probability of witnessing more cooperation agreements between Beijing and Moscow regarding energy or arms deals. Perhaps more importantly, China has almost every reason to expect more support from Russia in the territorial disputes of the East and South China Sea, while at the same time Beijing might feel less obliged to endorse Moscow’s policy on other international issues.

The Ukraine crisis also proves that the US reacts to other crises in ways that could severely undermine its ability to manage the paramount priority, which is China’s global rise. As Dimitri Simes and Paul Saunders put it, the repeated failure of the Obama administration’s policy process, which combines bold and moralistic pronouncements with no real policy, has kept US officials and diplomats facing simultaneous simmering crises all around the world. The recent months have been unusually thorny for the Chinese President Xi Jinping and the Premier Li Keqiang: terror attacks in Kunming and Xinjiang, the mysterious disappearance of MH370 with 153 Chinese passengers, the occupation of Taiwan’s Legislature by the protesters against a trade pact with mainland China, and maritime disputes with Vietnam. Fortunately, China can thank Putin for making Obama’s promise of a pivot to the Asia-Pacific (which, for China, looks less like a cooperation opportunity than a strategy of containment) more unrealistic than ever.

Just as in the 1970s and 1980s, Washington dearly needs Beijing to check Moscow’s political and military adventurism. Secretary Kerry still traveled with a smile to Beijing for the sixth joint meeting of the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue on 8 July, even though a day earlier China used war-related anniversaries to strongly criticize and pressure Japan, the most important ally of the US in East Asia. 

The impact of Putin’s adventure in Ukraine might be more profound than pushing Kiev, Moscow, and Washington closer to Beijing at the same time. The world today is more like the eve of World War I than the wake of World War II. The war of ideology between two blocs, which characterized the Cold War, has gone forever. And the legacy of the Cold War, the aura of ‘the triumph of democracy’, or in the tongue of Francis Fukuyama, "the end of history", which climaxed in the landslide victory of NATO in the Kosovo War, has largely faded after the Arab Spring.

In the eyes of China, when Putin uses the language of “referendum”, “human rights”, and “international laws”, which had once been the west’s exclusive privilege during the Kosovo Crisis and afterwards, as his cover for annexing Crimea and aiding the rebels, he imposes a de facto death penalty on these terms. Noble notions are too vague to be applied, while power politics triumphs in international relations again. And as China realises that 2014 is more like 1914, it must be relieved that it is no longer the impoverished country of a century ago.


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