Will China Help Stabilize Ukraine?

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

China has remained largely silent concerning the specter of Russian military intervention in Ukraine. Beijing has neither voiced support for Moscow, nor has it urged restraint. However, China is not indifferent. It has interests both in its relations with Russia and, more importantly, in the future stability of Ukraine. Washington should encourage China to play a more active part in bringing the crisis to a peaceful resolution.

The only official word from Beijing on the conflict has been through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In a press conference on Sunday, the MFA spokesman reaffirmed China’s commitment to Ukraine’s “independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity,” and called for a peaceful resolution of the situation, “with all sides respecting international law.” No specific mention was made of Russia or its military presence in the country.

China appears to be weighing three sets of interests in Ukraine. First, Beijing has no desire to unnecessarily complicate its relations with Moscow. Russia is a useful partner for China in areas ranging from energy and arms cooperation, joint positions on regional challenges such as Iran, Syria and North Korea, and broader opposition to perceived excesses of U.S. “hegemony” around the world. China also likely prefers not to lose the positive momentum gained from President Xi Jinping’s attendance at the Sochi Olympics last month.

Indeed, the importance of Ukraine to Russia has not been lost on Chinese observers. For instance, Wang Haiyun, a senior advisor with a PLA-affiliated think tank, remarked that Ukraine is a “core interest” for Russia, and asserted that China should strengthen consultations with Russia on the matter.

Second, China has an interest in the long-term stability of Ukraine. In particular, Beijing has incentives to prevent a chaotic situation that would undermine its economic and strategic relations with Kiev. China is Ukraine’s second-largest trading partner after Russia, with total trade in 2013 valued at $7.3 billion. China also has major stakes in Ukraine’s agricultural sector, with a September deal reportedly granting a PRC state-owned enterprise access to up to five percent of Ukraine’s arable land.

In addition, China’s relations with Ukraine deepened in December with a “strategic partnership” signed by Xi and then president Viktor Yanukovych. This agreement involved a five-year, $30 billion plan to boost PRC investment in areas including infrastructure, aviation and aerospace, energy, agriculture, and finance. As part of this, China extended “security guarantees” to Ukraine. Despite Yanukovych’s departure, China’s MFA last week reaffirmed that the strategic partnership and its provisions were still in effect.

Third, China has a broader interest in defending the norm of non-interference in states’ internal affairs. Although China has adopted a more flexible interpretation of this norm in recent years, Beijing is likely reluctant to condone external military intervention in Ukraine without UN Security Council approval. The reason is that Beijing fears that any erosion of the norm could have potential implications for outside meddling in China’s own claimed territories, including Tibet and Taiwan.

Given China’s competing interests in Ukraine, what are the chances that Beijing will move away from its cautious, equivocal position and towards a stronger opposition to Russian military involvement?

The evidence to date shows no movement in this direction. PRC concern about Russian military intervention in Ukraine was confined to a single editorial in Global Times, a popular nationalistic newspaper, which argued that Moscow has “many points of leverage which can trigger new problems in the current crisis.”

Rather, PRC commentary last week focused more on fears of Western subversion in Ukraine than about Russia’s role in the conflict. An editorial in People’s Daily urged the West to give up its “Cold War mentality” over Ukraine, while another warned about Ukraine falling into a Western “democracy trap.” Yin Zhuo, a prominent PRC media commentator, argued on China Central Television that Western “illegal actions” in the Ukraine have made the situation less stable. These concerns are consistent with prior PRC suspicions about Western meddling in the mid-2000s “color revolutions,” the Arab Spring, and other cases.

Nevertheless, China may continue to distance itself from Russia’s position, at least to a degree. The reasons include the following:

- 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.