China Caught in a Bind Over Crimea Decision to Quit Ukraine

By Parameswaran Ponnudurai
2014-03-18
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Liu Jieyi, China's Ambassador to the United Nations, arrives for a closed-door meeting of the Security Council, at the U.N. headquarters in New York, March 4, 2014.
AFP

A referendum for the independence of Tibet?  A vote for self-determination in Xinjiang?

Such questions surrounding the future of the two restive autonomous regions in China may appear far-fetched.

But they may have been uppermost in the minds of the leaders in Beijing when Ukraine's Crimea region declared independence this week and voted to join ally Russia.

The prospect of dangerous challenges to the Chinese government’s rule in the two regions is believed to have been behind Beijing's ambiguous stand over Crimea's decision to quit Ukraine in a referendum, analysts said.

China had been torn between declaring support for Russia's intervention in Crimea and sticking to its long-held policy of noninterference in the internal affairs of other countries, they said.

Fearing any foreign-backed popular uprisings on its own soil, Beijing chose not to endorse Moscow's aggression in Crimea or back a U.N. resolution condemning the referendum, according to the analysts.

The ambiguous stand would avoid sending the wrong signals to China's own troubled regions of Tibet and Xinjiang where cries for freedom are increasing by the day.

"Noninterference has stood China in good stead, justifying inaction in many crisis situations from Sudan to Syria to North Korea," said Elizabeth Economy, a China expert at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.

Noninterference also applied to China itself and Beijing’s long-standing concern that others might want to meddle in the country's internal affairs, she said in a blog post.

"Let’s not forget that all along China’s periphery are provinces and autonomous regions with restive minorities that boast closer ethnic and/or cultural ties to China’s neighbors than to Beijing," Economy said.

"What if Mongolia stirred up trouble in Inner Mongolia, or some of the Central Asian states such as Kazakhstan or Kyrgyzstan caused problems in Xinjiang," she asked.

China abstains in UN vote

China, which usually works in tandem with Russia at the U.N. Security Council, abstained from a vote on a resolution condemning Crimea's referendum at the council's meeting on Saturday.

Beijing said adopting such a resolution would "only result in confrontation and further complicate the situation."  Russia used its veto powers as a permanent council member to torpedo the resolution despite a 13-1 vote for it.

"We believe that due to the complex historical and practical factors, we should take everything into consideration when dealing with the Ukrainian issue," the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement at the weekend.

Referring to the statement, The Wall Street Journal noted in an editorial this week that Tibet, Xinjiang, and even Inner Mongolia "certainly have some complex historical factors."

"The people of Hong Kong would also have found it more practical to remain British subjects in 1997, and even today Beijing risks confrontation in the city's streets by failing to honor promises of democracy," the paper said.

It accused Beijing of standing with Moscow against the Western order "because it fears democratic uprisings more than it fears separatist movements."

"A challenge from minorities is easily crushed, but the [ruling Chinese] Communist Party's support among the majority Han population is more fragile than it appears."

Business interests

Politics aside, China wants to also safeguard its strong business and other interests in both Russia and Ukraine.

Ukraine is a top supplier of grain to China, as well as military technology. Beijing's prototype aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, is a refurbished ship bought from Ukraine.

Ukraine has also agreed to lease five percent of its land to China for agricultural purposes in return for Chinese infrastructure investment.

Russia, on the other hand, is a major supplier of China's energy needs. Bilateral trade between the two erstwhile Cold War rivals has grown seven times over the last 12 years to almost U.S. $100 billion annually, reports say.

Still, China took an equally cautious stand during the Russia-Georgia conflict in 2008.

China did not express support for either side. It abstained from a 2009 vote on the former Soviet republic of Georgia after Russia supported the declarations of independence by South Ossetia and Abkhazia, which announced their secession after Russia's brief war with Georgia.

"If China and Russia have competing interests, they also have shared antipathies—namely of the United States," said Dean Cheng, senior research fellow at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation's Asian Studies Center.

"China is unlikely to find common cause with the United States, especially by antagonizing Russia," he said.

"Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s criticisms of [former Soviet leader] Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies leading to the fall of the USSR only highlight Beijing’s view that the world should be made safe for autocracies," Cheng said. "To that end, Beijing is much more likely to side with Moscow than Washington."

The United States and its European allies have stepped up their pressure on Russia to end its intervention in Ukraine by imposing the most comprehensive sanctions against Russian officials since the Cold War.

The West says that splitting off Crimea from Ukraine violates the Ukrainian constitution and international law and has taken place under duress from the Russian military.

But Russian leader Vladimir Putin maintains that the vote was legal and consistent with the right of self-determination and has vowed to move forward with procedures to annex Crimea, escalating the most serious East-West crisis since the end of the Cold War.

"We hope all parties can calmly maintain restraint to prevent the situation from further escalating and worsening. Political resolution and dialogue is the only way out," Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Li Baodong said ahead of a visit to Europe by President Xi Jinping later this month.