Should China Support Russia in Ukraine?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Alexander V. Pantsov: The Chinese Communist Party leadership has always maintained: “China believes in non-interference in internal affairs.” In the current Ukrainian situation it is the most we can expect from the P.R.C. because it is not able to lean to either the Western or Russian side without reservation. China cannot unconditionally support the West since she disagrees with the Western perception of political and social democracy. Moreover, the Chinese leaders cannot be pleased with the popular revolution in Ukraine because the 2013-14 events on Independence Square in Kiev clearly resemble those of April-June 1989 on Tiananmen Square in Beijing. It is well known that the Beijing authorities do not embrace Mencius’ assertion that the people have the right to change the Heavenly Mandate (tianming) if a ruler lost virtue (de). So how can they favor the downfall of the corrupted Ukrainian President? However, the P.R.C. cannot approve the Russian invasion of Crimea either. After all, it openly violates sovereignty of another country and undoubtedly brings to mind the Nazi Anschluss with Austria (March 1938) and the Nazi annexation of the Sudetenland (October 1938) and Memel (March 1939). The P.R.C. has her own problems with potentially unstable territories such as Tibet and Xinjiang and it certainly cannot consider legitimate the future Crimean referendum of March 16 that will definitely endorse the break away from Ukraine and the joining Russia. Given this, China, on the one side, has recently repeated that she respected the territorial integrity of Ukraine and hoped that all parties would preserve peace in Europe, but on the other side, has failed to support the American and E.U. sanctions. The very word “sanctions” must bring to their mind the 1989 negative reaction of the Democratic World to the Tiananmen Massacre. As the Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang asserted, “China has constantly opposed the easy use of sanctions in international relations, or using sanctions as a threat.”

Of course, I would be pleased to learn that the P.R.C. denounces Putin as a vicious aggressor as he is, but I do not think it will happen. The Chinese failed to do so in the wake of the Russian shameful invasion of Georgia in 2008 and they do not seem likely to do it now.


I am not in the business of telling China what it should do (the very question put to us is very American). However, I can analyze what China is doing and may do in the future regarding the crisis in Ukraine. First, it will surely not support the West since it sees the crisis was engineered by the West aiming at world domination. In countering this tendency, in China’s view, Russia is a valuable ally. A commentary by Xinhua news agency on March 7 entitled “The West's Fiasco in Ukraine” is very sympathetic to Russia’s actions and critical of those of the West: “Russia may no longer be interested in competing for global preeminence with the West, but when it comes to cleaning a mess the West created in the country's backyard, Russian leaders once again proved their credibility and shrewdness in planning and executing effective counter moves”. In short, Beijing is happy that someone was brave and resolute enough to take effective measures against Western “hegemonism.” But it is also comfortable that this was not China, and the Ukrainian crisis would not worsen Sino-U.S. relations that China values. It would also divert U.S. attention from it alleged plot of encircling China and limiting its legitimately growing influence in East Asia.

Beijing has already rejected any kind of sanctions against Russia and would veto them in the Security Council alongside with Russia. Generally, China sees the current situation in Ukraine as a “mess” created by the Western ineffective and greedy policy. The Xinhua commentary runs:

“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.”

By “mess” Beijing usually means a situation created by Western sponsored actions aimed at undermining stable (often authoritarian) regimes all over the world which in Beijing’s opinion can effectively secure the country’s economic development and growing cooperation with China. This term was used to describe the Tiananmen crisis in 1989, “color revolutions” in Arab states, etc. Beijing’s regime sees countering this tendency even far from China’s borders as a means of protecting itself since it understands that the same tactics can be used by the West in China. From this point of view China would only welcome Russia’s growing will to counter Western expansion.

The only thing China would not officially support is Russia’s decision to annex Crimea or recognize its independence (in case such a decision is taken). Beijing’s position will be similar to that on the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia: generally supportive of Russia’s actions, but not approving undermining territorial integrity of existing states. Here China’s approach is determined by its own separatist problems in Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang. Beijing, as it has already clearly stated, will also not support any kind of military action initiated by any side and will support a peaceful, diplomatic resolution of the conflict on the basis of compromise.

I. Why China will support Russian aggression:

  1. Because it never supports the position of the U.S. or the West, particularly when it has to do with condemning the actions of authoritarian regimes. In addition, China believes that the crisis in the Ukraine is orchestrated by the West.
  2. Because China’s authoritarian leaders fear that a Ukrainian “revolution from below” that overthrows the corrupt regime might serve as an example for the Chinese people. A Ukrainian revolution would be an authoritarian governments’ worst nightmare.
  3. Because the new Ukrainian government is pro-Western and is likely to join the majority of democratic nations in condemning the Chinese government’s human rights violations.
  4. Because the Chinese government never supports international sanctions, fearing that such sanctions could be applied against their own policies.

II. Why China should not support Russian aggression:

  1. Because China has several regions where the rights of the indigenous population are violated and native languages are suppressed. The Crimean example might give these peoples the “wrong” ideas.
  2. Because of the situation in Taiwan, where China never recognized independence.
  3. Because a fear that Xinjiang and Tibet might be emboldened by the Crimean situation.
  4. Because Beijing usually does not support military actions outside the country’s sovereign borders.

Since the Ukraine crisis, Chinese President Xi Jinping has made two important phone calls, one to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and one to U.S. President Barack Obama. Xi told Merkel that the Ukraine situation is “highly sensitive” and needs to be weighed carefully. In his phone conversation with Obama, Xi said, “The situation in Ukraine is extremely complex, and what is most urgent is for all sides to remain calm and exercise restraint to avoid an escalation in tensions. Political and diplomatic routes must be used to resolve the crisis.”

Xi’s remarks are disappointing. The new leaders in Kiev do not feel China’s support. Washington, London and Brussels may believe Beijing is simply playing the game of no moral commitment and it has no intention whatsoever to complain about a Moscow power play.

If I were serving on China’s newly created National Security Council and asked to make a policy recommendation, I would argue that China should support the United States in condemning Moscow’s attempt to annex Crimea and eastern parts of Ukraine and should consider participating in the international sanctions against Moscow if it moves on Crimea.

First, Russians’ claim that where Russian is spoken it has the right to annex only has negative implications for China’s Tibet and Xinjiang where there are strong elements for secession.

Second, when many in Taiwan talk about using referendum to determine its eventual destiny of statehood, Beijing always adheres to the principle that a real referendum on Taiwan’s sovereignty must include people on the mainland. Will Beijing’s silence on this issue be used later by people in Taiwan and even in Hong Kong?

Third, Russia is the country that used force and intimidation in the Czar years to engage in land grabbing from China. To remain silent on the Russian aggression now is tantamount to conceding to past territorial aggressions against China and makes China’s current staunch position on the Diaoyu Islands look flimsy.

Fourth, China has floated loans to Kiev and signed many economic and agricultural deals. China has also bought and may need to buy more weapons from Ukraine. Will China’s acquiescence in front of a Russian invasion lead to any economic losses?

Fifth, the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence is China’s hallowed foreign policy. Not to apply it to the Ukraine situation may lead to accusation of practicing double standards.

Sixth, will Moscow really offer support to China’s territorial claims on Japan and Southeast Asian countries if China supports Moscow on the Ukraine issue? The Kremlin is stingy and President Putin has not offered any concrete support on these issues to Zhongnanhai although President Xi made two trips to Russia since coming to power in 2013.

Lastly, the most important bilateral relationship for China is its relationship with the United States. To align itself with Washington will be a giant step toward building a new model of major country relations. Will the Chinese economy tank if Russia reduces energy supply to China? Will the U.S. not come to China’s support if it indeed happens?

In the real world of geopolitics even if Beijing chooses not to openly support Washington and other Western countries and not to openly condemn Moscow’s rash action, it has to make it clear to the world that China will respect international laws and observe equal treatment of nations in the world. Otherwise, it will be rendered powerless in confronting its own ethnic issues down the road.

If China can survive this Ukraine moment with adherence to international laws and bearing moral standards without sacrificing much of its own interests, it will be the moment that China can say to the world ‘We are a big power and we represent truth and justice.’

Assuming Moscow gets what it desires in the coming weeks, what will President Xi say at the EU Headquarters during his upcoming visit?

The CCP says it agrees with Putin on the right of a powerful nation to intervene in the internal affairs of nations in the backyard of a great power. After all, that is what the CCP government is doing all around Asia.

Does the PRC agree, however, that the US then has the right to overthrow the government in Cuba or Venezuela?

On the Ukraine, the authoritarian CCP will of course oppose the international forces of democratization and human rights.

An under-explored issue for the region is how the issue of Putin's "rescue" of supposedly endangered Russian minorities is playing with the various governments in all the countries in the region which have Russian minorities.

But for Putin what matters more is how his acceptance of a Europe-oriented Ukraine might play among ruling groups in Russia. Would passivity badly weaken him at home?

It is a ubiquitous reality that the powerful nation in a region tends to believe it has the right to dominate what the powerful nation imagines as "its backyard", ignoring that "its back yard" is another nation's front yard and home.

After all, India no more has the right to invade Pakistan or Vietnam to invade Cambodia than Russia has the right to invade the Ukraine just because it disapproves of the political tendencies in Kiev. But not acting militarily can be costly at home.

Putin would probably claim that the issue for him and his nation is an existential challenge to Russia, NATO expansion to block the return of Russia to greatness. Kennedy, after all, risked war to block the placement of missiles by the USSR in Castro's Cuba.

One might think that that logic would allow for a diplomatic solution in which NATO and the Ukraine guaranteed that the Ukraine would never become a member of NATO. But why should Putin believe in such a guarantee? He would not.

Never trust power. Only power can check power.

In a world where leaders of powerful nations mistrust the words and deeds of powerful nations which they imagine as hostile, the domestic and global ambitions of the leadership of a great power almost always faces the possibility of militarizing international disputes.

On the Ukraine, the big question for war or peace may be how Putin imagines what German Chancellor Angela Merkel might do in response to what Putin wants to do.