On the growing crisis over Ukraine, China has remained quietly supportive of Russia. Yet, Russia overestimates and exaggerates China’s level of support that is closer to acquiescence rather than actual support for the turmoil that Russia is engendering.
China has largely sat on the sidelines of the current dispute over Ukraine. Hawkish Chinese commentators have stated that this approach of standing aside and watching is part of a bigger Chinese strategy to encourage a multipolar world, while the official position has largely been quite bland. In contrast, Russian commentators and officials have used every opportunity to highlight the fact that Beijing was on the same page as Moscow.
Recently, in an interview on Russian state television, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov characterised China as ‘our very close partners’ of whom he has no doubts. For Russia, as President Putin put it when he formally announced Crimea’s annexing in the Duma, ‘we are grateful to the people of China, whose leaders have always, when considering the situation in Ukraine and Crimea, taken into account the full historical and political context.’
On the face of it, these interpretations of China’s support are accurate, but the reality is far more complex, with China uneasy about Russia's actions though it may share Moscow's concerns.
For all the bombast in its Pacific seawaters, it could be argued that China remains largely a status quo power that sees advantage in letting the current global order proceed along what it perceives as a natural trajectory in which it is ascendant. For policymakers in Beijing, this is a path that ends with China atop a constellation of new and old power centres from the UN Security Council to the G20 and BRICS.
China can see that its economic might and physical size places it in a position that current global trends favour. The question is how to manage this rise in a smooth manner so as to ensure the Communist Party can maintain supremacy in this complicated world.
Russia's actions in Ukraine do little to smooth this path. In fact, they cause chaos and instability in a number of key Chinese markets, from Russia to Europe, as well as stirring up concerns in adjacent Central Asia.The former Soviet states of Central Asia worry about Russia's long-term intent and the implications to them of sanctions. They have little interest in becoming involved in Russia’s spats with the West and are concerned that Moscow may try to exert its considerable leverage over them in some manner contrary to their interests.
China is the ascendant power in the region, but the Central Asians have little interest in completely re-aligning themselves towards Beijing and, in any case, China lacks the weight (and interest) to become the main regional security guarantor. In Europe, markets are in turmoil as leaders fret about how to punish Russia in a way that is not damaging to themselves while also worrying about the longer term implications of growing tensions between themselves and Russia.
All of this will doubtless have a knock-on effect on Chinese markets, be this through shrunken global trade or weakened regional trade: these factors might damage China’s already slowing economic growth. The Chinese leadership has little interest in such tensions that do nothing but disrupt markets.
Moreover, China does not look favourably on people recognising separatist states and has traditionally maintained, at least rhetorically, to its sacred non-interference principle (though this is in fact an increasingly obsolete principle). China fears the dangerous precedent that has been set in recognising a separatist province. Previously, when Russia carried out similar behaviour in Georgia in 2008, China was clear in using the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) to block a call of support for Russia's actions. Both China and the Central Asian members of the SCO have their own set of concerns about separatist or minority communities – the last thing that they are interested in is supporting a new international trend of recognising breakaway states.
Explaining Chinese Acquiescence
Yet behind all these concerns, there is also a sense of agreement with Russia's actions, something that helps explain China’s quiescent pose on Ukraine.These are captured in an attentive reading of Lavrov's comments. As he put it: ‘Our contacts with Chinese partners have shown that they not only understand the lawful interests of Russia in this entire affair but that we have the identical understanding of the initial causes of the current deep crisis in Ukraine’
This is a more nuanced comment than it might sound, explaining in part how China recognises the validity of Russian concerns, but does not express its own views of Russian actions. China fundamentally agrees that the chaotic governance that led to the collapse of the Yanukovich regime and subsequent trouble is a bad thing. China, like Russia, sees great potential danger in public protests that culminate in the overthrow of a government.
Both countries were appalled at the chaos stirred up by the ‘colour revolutions’ in Ukraine (2004), Georgia (2003) and Kyrgyzstan (2005) and have looked on unhappily as the West has watched the Arab world implode in response to public protests during the Arab spring:as emphasised in particular in Syria. The Arab world has yet to really recover, while arguably, the ‘colour revolutions’ in former Soviet countries are still resonating today with difficult governments in all three.
In this analysis, Ukraine today is merely the latest iteration of this trend, and it is one that both China and Russia fear might lead to repercussions or even emulation at home. This fear, added to China's unwillingness to turn completely against Moscow seeing it as a long-term geostrategic ally on important international issues like Iran, Syria or others, will ultimately bind the two countries together and will see China continuing to play a largely observer role in events in Ukraine.
For outside observers, the lesson is an important one. China is a passive ally of Russia over Ukraine, something borne out of an ideological and geopolitical concerns rather than an appreciation of the Russian heavy-handed response.
How Best to Appeal to China?
This difference is key to note if the West is going to find a way to get China to grow into a bigger role internationally. China is not the same sort of difficult global power like Russia, it is rather a power that sees trends going in its direction and is happy to continue to nurture them along.
This means that China’s interests can be appealed to if care is taken to understand China’s motivations. In the longer-term China wants a stable Ukraine, Europe and EU-Russia relationship. All of these will provide it with the sort of economic partners that it can profit and grow from. China may be sitting on the sidelines in the current difficulties, but their eye is on longer-term global picture where they see themselves triumphant.
Senior Associate Fellow