China torn between policies and partnership

China torn between policies and partnership

Its solution has been to equivocate, which in a way appears to hand a diplomatic victory to Putin.

From the Nato air war in Kosovo to the American invasion of Iraq, China’s opposition to foreign interference in a country’s internal affairs has been one of the mainstays of its foreign policy, along with a strategic partnership with Russia to counteract the diplomatic and economic might of the West.

Those two imperatives have collided over Ukraine, placing China in an awkward bind. It does not want to alienate its strategic partner, which has lobbied heavily for China’s support for its intervention in Ukraine. Yet it cannot be seen as supporting a referendum in Crimea, which Russia backs, on the peninsula’s possible secession from Ukraine. For Beijing, that comes uncomfortably close to approving a vote on independence for Tibet or Taiwan. China’s solution has been to equivocate, but in a way that appears to hand a diplomatic victory to President Vladimir V Putin of Russia as he faces off against the United States and Europe over Ukraine.

On Tuesday, when asked to comment on how China views the referendum, which has been denounced by the newly installed government in Kiev as well as the United States and Europe, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman was studiously noncommittal. “We call on all parties to properly handle the rights and interests of all ethnic communities in Ukraine, to restore social order and uphold peace and stability in the region as soon as possible,” the spokesman, Qin Gang, said. The references to ethnic rights and the loss of social order echo some of Russia’s stated reasons for intervening in Ukraine.

Putin is secure in the knowledge that Beijing will abstain from any United Nations Security Council efforts to condemn Russia’s invasion, analysts said. Should crushing sanctions be imposed by the West, the Kremlin is banking on the likelihood that China will step up its economic engagement to keep a pivotal ally afloat. “If the West closes more doors to Russia, China would become more important, that’s for sure,” said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre. “It’s the one country that would not follow sanctions.”

Yet it is clear that the issue treads on sensitive ground for China, and it has contorted itself to find a neutral diplomatic position. At the United Nations, the Chinese envoy, Liu Jieyi, said in a public meeting of the Security Council in early March that China has always supported “noninterference” in the affairs of a sovereign country. On Monday, Liu spoke up in favor of Ukraine’s “sovereignty” and “territorial integrity.” He also gave a nod to how complicated the situation in Ukraine was, but he could well have been speaking for his own capital.

Relations between Moscow and Beijing have grown steadily closer since the early 1990s, when the fall of the Soviet Union brought an end to the decades of enmity that were largely based on ideological differences between the two Communist states. As permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, the two countries have come to rely on each other to veto measures condemning dictators in Zimbabwe, Myanmar and Syria. And just last month, after President Obama and several European leaders snubbed  Putin by skipping the Winter Olympics in Sochi, the Russians took comfort in the sight of President Xi Jinping of China cheering from the stands.

Challenges and perils

Yet while it may preserve the strategic relationship with Moscow, China’s support for Russian aggression in the Crimea comes with its own set of challenges and perils. Beyond rendering hollow its nonintervention credo, the coming plebiscite makes Chinese leaders especially uneasy, given the aspirations of millions of Tibetans, Mongolians and Uighurs who would jump at the opportunity to vote themselves out of the current arrangement with Beijing.

Those fears were highlighted this month when a group of attackers from far west Xinjiang, a region with a large population of Turkic-speaking Muslims, slashed to death 29 people at a train station in southwest China. Then there is Taiwan, the self-governed island off the coast of eastern China that Beijing hopes to reunite with the mainland despite the objections of most residents, who prefer the status quo.

Russia’s Western rivals, having absorbed lectures about Western arrogance and self-righteousness, have not been shy about highlighting China’s difficulties. “China was one of the countries that underlined the importance it attached to the unity and territorial integrity of Ukraine,” Mark Lyall-Grant, the British ambassador, said in response to a question about China’s stance.

Last week, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, indirectly referred to China’s position, too. “Russia finds itself extremely isolated.” She did not have to name China. It was implied, since on virtually every other major issue the Council has faced in recent months, China and Russia have stood shoulder to shoulder.

Moscow, on the other hand, has sought to play up Beijing’s support for its position. Last week, Russian state television reported that the two governments shared a “broad agreement in points of view” regarding the Crimean conflict. Mainstream Russian analysts say that China shares Moscow’s anxieties over Western-backed anti-government uprisings, but that it is constrained by worries about homegrown separatism. They also said Beijing might be holding back greater support until it had a clearer indication of a Western response — the nature of sanctions from the United States and its allies, or the precise wording of a Security Council resolution.

One likely result is the speedy closing of an agreement to supply Russian gas to Chinese markets, a deal more than five years in the works and snagged in negotiations over prices, according to Vasily Kashin, a China specialist from the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technology, a Moscow-based research centre. “Now that it’s clear that we will not have big projects with Europe, and in general, everything is cloudy, it is probable that we will soon sign major agreements with the Chinese,”  Kashin told Vechernyaya Moskva, a daily newspaper.

“Of course the prices will not be as high as deliveries to Europe, but it will not be a loss-making project.”

China also faces a dilemma over how to deal with Ukraine’s new Western-backed government, in that it was born out of a popular revolt against a corrupt leader — a scenario that unnerves the ruling Communist Party. But by backing Russia too forcefully, it risks damaging relations with Ukraine, a country that has substantial Chinese investment. Last year, the two countries reportedly signed a multibillion-dollar deal to lease Ukrainian farmland for 50 years, and Kiev has been one of China’s more reliable providers of military hardware.

“It’s a double jeopardy for China,” said Titus C Chen, a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations, National Chengchi University in Taiwan. “China’s leaders can’t afford to side with Kiev, and they cannot side with Russia’s forceful policy.”