A Chinese scholar explains why Beijing may not want to sit this crisis out
The situation in the Ukraine is delicate, to say the least. On balance, Russia is probably where it wants to be given its inability to prevent the initial ouster of Yanukovych: it controls a region over which it has a strong historical claim, and has managed to do this without creating any antagonism in the rest of the Ukraine that did not already exist. This has been done without fatalities, and Russia remains a potential “friend.” Having said that, with every passing day it is Russia rather than the West that will be under increasing pressure to come up a resolution to the impasse, especially given the U.S. position.
China has, as usual, sat on the sidelines without getting even remotely involved. And why should it? Neville Chamberlain’s description of conflict in “a far away country between people of whom we know nothing” was never more apt than in understanding China’s view of Eastern Europe, which holds little in the way of natural resources and for the moment does not represent a significant export market. True, the Chinese own 9 percent of Ukrainian farmland now; but the crisis has probably been welcomed insofar as it has relegated deeper analysis of the recent Kunming terrorist attack and the broader Xinjiang problem to the back pages.
Yet China is mistaken to sit back and do nothing on Ukraine, because there is something at stake. Strategically, Beijing may calculate that letting the Americans become “involved” in the Ukraine means a further weakening of Obama’s already rudderless efforts in the Pacific. But this is only half the story: if this involvement went on to constitute a “defeat” (any scenario where Russia ends up with a more secure border than before) it would help weaken the strongest weapon in the U.S. arsenal: the soft power effect. This would further dent belief across the world in the efficacy of American action, helping China in its own Asian strategy. Moreover, China has no interest in helping legitimize public protests as a form of sociopolitical reform and development. In Kiev, just as in comparable situations such as Istanbul, Cairo and Bangkok, there is an ongoing battle over the question of whether mass urban protest is justifiable and productive, and how outside powers should intervene with support or otherwise. China clearly is not incentivized to see the overthrow of incumbent regimes.
There is also a longer term calculation. China is in many ways an imperialistic power utilizing a “big country” approach towards diplomacy. It has demonstrated a reluctance to engage in diplomacy as viewed through the Westphalian paradigm, and its insensitivity constantly surprises Western observers. But there is one issue which it cares deeply about: Taiwan. And the Russian seizure of the Crimea provides an interesting template for China as to how eventual reunification might take place in the “worst case” scenario, namely through force. What the Russians have managed on their peninsula is to act quickly and decisively, presenting the world with a fait accompli. It has done so with very little violence, and through the mobilization of insiders supportive to the region, whether or not they are in the majority, it can present photogenic welcoming parties to the arriving forces. At the very least, the situation is not (even in the Western media) a black-and-white case of aggression. That is all that Russia needed; it is difficult to envisage any outcome of the crisis now which does not see Russia with a strengthened position in the Crimea, irrespective of what happens with the rest of the Ukraine. A corresponding outcome with Taiwan would suit China nicely.
How could China insert itself in the Ukraine? It would be alarming for Beijing to suddenly become a proactive player in a place so far away. Instead China should be looking to leverage BRICS, or, if the relevant support from India and Brazil are not forthcoming, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) as a vehicle to further its strategy. China does not in fact care for multilateralism or these bodies per se; but it is notionally signed up to them and they are as useful here as they will ever be. Moreover, despite the general hubris that is an emerging feature of the Chinese psyche in foreign policy, Russia is one of the few powers it has historically respected. Thus, China can help Russia by driving a broader, non-Western consensus to front this plan.
A possible deal needs to align a number of interests and satisfy some of Russia’s key requirements whilst also allowing the West to claim the basis of a new future. China would need to aim for the following:
- The current Kiev administration must be ended and its actions delegitimized. There is very little chance that Yanukovych can re-emerge but a new interim government could feature regional representation – structured in such a way that there is no question that the pro-Russian side has a voice equal to its weight amongst the public. A new physical capital altogether may even be advisable. What is paramount is that the government that arose out of the protests in the square must be reduced in status to that of an illicit, disruptive force.
- The status of the Crimea is more problematic. It seems unclear that Russia necessarily desired to occupy the region before the fear arose of losing patronage over the Ukraine. The obvious solution is to strengthen its “autonomy” and Russia’s military structures there, whilst maintaining the notional integrity of the Ukraine overall. Russian seizure of the area unilaterally – with or without the referendum – would be mutually exclusive to point 1 and unlikely to be part of a SCO / BRICS-brokered deal.
- Lastly there is the question of the Eastern Ukraine. In an extreme case, Russia may want to press for plebiscites to decide its, future including independence from Kiev and/or reunification with Russia. However plebiscites would sit ill with China. A successful implementation of point 1 would negate the need for Russia to push for voting and this could be supplemented by a major commitment to BRICS-led investment in the eastern part of the country (as opposed to US-led investment). This ‘federalization’ would serve China’s interests in both protecting its current exposure and for it to be a further base for expansion.
Such a plan could draw interest from a number of non-aligned parties. The promise of economic development and investment is a powerful one, and one could reasonably see entities such as Dubai becoming involved in making the Eastern Ukraine some sort of regional “neutral” hub from which the BRICS+ can establish themselves as a force.
It would require imagination, but there is far more to be gained for China by attempting to do something, than by doing nothing. The latter offers no long-term benefits, whilst the former could begin to add an interesting arrow to the Chinese foreign relations quiver.
Andong Peng is a researcher at Tsinghua University’s School of Public Policy and Management. His area of focus includes Chinese foreign policy and communications.