Will China Help Stabilize Ukraine?

Beijing has complex interests in the region. Washington should encourage their participation.

- China refused to endorse Russia’s 2008 incursion into Georgia, with an MFA spokesman at that time calling for all parties to exercise restraint and for a ceasefire. The MFA spokesman’s statement on Sunday reaffirming China’s support for Ukraine’s independence suggests a similar reluctance to condone perceived excessive external involvement. Both statements are consistent with China’s long-standing emphasis on non-interference in states’ domestic affairs.

- China likely feels no obligation to back Russia’s position. The reason is that Moscow has offered no support to Beijing in the latter’s territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas. Instead, China has been concerned about increasing Russian cooperation with Vietnam and Japan, both of which are locked in territorial disputes with China.

- China and Russia have misaligned priorities on Ukraine. Moscow is more concerned about protecting its sphere of influence, while China is more interested in advancing its economic and strategic relations with Kiev. This fits with Bobo Lo’s larger observation that Sino-Russian relations have been beset by “historical suspicions, cultural prejudices, geopolitical rivalry, and competing priorities.” making bilateral ties more of an “axis of convenience” than a true alliance.

For these reasons, Washington may be able to count on Beijing to at least remain neutral in the conflict. In addition, Washington should set realistic expectations for the extent of potential cooperation with China, given Beijing’s strategic partnership with Moscow and its concerns about Western interference in Ukraine.

But China should also not be counted out of the solution. As a country with clear stakes in Ukraine’s stability, and as a long-time advocate for the norm of sovereignty, China should be expected to play an affirmative role in the conflict. This means promoting political reconciliation and joining other donors in offering financial aid to the new government in Kiev. It also means continuing to voice support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, including in the UN Security Council.

As Thomas Christensen has argued, there are advantages to China becoming more “assertive” in international affairs. China has the interests and the resources to contribute to the peaceful resolution of crises when they occur, and can be at its best when it does not sit on the sidelines. The current crisis in Ukraine offers an excellent opportunity for China to play just such a role.

Joel Wuthnow, Ph.D., is a China analyst at the CNA Corporation, a non-profit research and analysis organization located in Alexandria, Va. You can follow him on Twitter: @jwuthnow.

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