Analysts like John Mearsheimer
who hold this view tend to focus on signs of closer Sino–Russian relations. A
30-year gas deal, arms deals, joint naval exercises in the Mediterranean, a
currency swap agreement, complimentary stances on strategic issues and a
propensity to provide each other political support in front of Western critics
all seem to point in that direction. These analysts then conclude that a ‘soft’
Sino–Russian alliance is coming to intentionally target the United States.
But these arguments are
flawed. There is still strategic distrust between the two powers. And China has
refused to compromise on its principles of non-interference and sovereignty by
supporting Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Yet a more fundamental
mistake is that these analysts underestimate the China–Ukraine relationship.
It’s problematic to say China and Russia are moving closer due to the crisis if
Beijing hasn’t altered its cooperation with Kiev. While China–Ukraine relations
appeared frozen at the height of the crises, they’ve now begun to warm up with
increasing signs of exchange and cooperation in economics, trade and other
Some question whether
Beijing abandoned Kiev. The Ukraine crisis did put Beijing in a dilemma: both
Russia and Ukraine are its strategic partners. Some observers assume that a
rational choice was to stand with Moscow, but this underestimates the
importance of Ukraine in Beijing’s calculations. Apart from shared economic
interests, Ukraine is more willing to sell advanced weapons and share sensitive
technology with China than Russia.
Abandoning Ukraine may never
be an option for China, although a short period of stagnation is possible.
While Beijing is usually active in evacuating its civilians from restive
situations, that did not happen in Ukraine. Chinese investors, most of which are
After years of social and
political instability, Kiev needs trade and investment to rebuild its national
economy and China is ready to export infrastructure development projects under
the One Belt, One Road initiative. Senior diplomats
from both nations have expressed their willingness to cooperate under the
initiative. All this indicates that China and Ukraine are ready to restore and
improve their bilateral relations.
Many observers also argue
that China sided with Russia in the Crimean crisis. They then raise the
possibility that Russia may support China’s sovereignty claims in the East
China Sea and South China Sea
in return. But this is questionable.
Russia definitely has more
strategic significance than Ukraine in Beijing’s eyes, yet Beijing is not ready
to change its non-interference principle for Russia. In a joint communique on
the establishment of diplomatic relations in 1992 and again in subsequent
statements, China clearly recognised Crimea as under Ukraine’s sovereignty.
Backing down from this stance would hurt China’s credibility and antagonise the
There are multiple reasons
why Beijing supports Moscow beyond Ukraine. Both China and Russia face Western
criticisms for their domestic politics and human rights record, and both see
the United States as the top potential security threat. Due to a lack of legitimacy
from democratic elections or a widely accepted ideology, Chinese leaders are
sensitive to real or imaged external threats, which generates strong incentives
to help an isolated Russia.
after the crisis is asymmetric. Simply put, Russia needs China more than China
needs Russia. Putin has paid exorbitantly to please Beijing. In addition to the
gas deal, Moscow has given key infrastructure projects to Chinese investors and
agreed ‘in principle’ to sell Beijing some of its most advanced weapons.
Putin’s offer can only create a temporary boom in Sino–Russian relations. But
meanwhile seeds of distrust and resentment are taking root in the Kremlin due
to Beijing’s refusal to admit Russia’s sovereignty over Crimea and ambiguity on
other key issues.
And just like China remains
ambiguous on Crimea, Russia is unlikely to take sides in China’s maritime
disputes. Russia has long served as the most important partner of India and
Vietnam in national defence. Chinese leaders must remember that during the
China–India border disputes in the 1950s, the Soviet Union stood with India,
which contributed to the collapse of the Sino–Soviet alliance. In the 1980s,
Vietnam, backed by the Soviets, threated China’s border security from the
And while Russia has
disputes with Japan over the Kuril
Islands/Northern Territories, it probably won’t go as far as to antagonise
Tokyo. In the long term, the Kremlin will develop its economic interests with
Tokyo to avoid economic overreliance on China. It is possible that Beijing sees
Russia’s involvement in East Asian security as unhelpful and counterproductive,
considering that it raises uncertainty and closer ties with Russia exacerbate
Western suspicions of China’s strategic intentions.
Some argue that the Ukraine
crisis signals a closer Sino–Russian strategic partnership, which could
potentially undermine the United States’ position. But China–Ukraine relations
are actually warming up and will probably continue to do so. With this in mind,
it’s inaccurate to say China sides with Moscow or is the biggest winner from
the Ukraine crisis.
Duan Xiaolin is a PhD
candidate in Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of