Ukraine: Quiet Support for Russia Will Harm China's Long-Term Interests

Though China is reticent over aspects of Russia’s behaviour in Ukraine, the general assumption in Beijing is that China could benefit from the Ukraine crisis. But a more careful look at the potential fallout from the showdown indicates that China’s strategic horizons are not as rosy as currently assumed.

China’s diplomats have every reason to feel satisfied with their handling of the Ukraine crisis. On the one hand, China expressed its support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, an implicit rebuke to Russia, which seized Ukraine’s Crimea region. But at the same time, the Chinese have abstained from all anti-Russian votes in the United Nations, and have let it be known that they will not be supporting anti-Russian sanctions. 

Beijing’s determination to have its cake and eat it, to be caught neither on Russia’s side nor on the West’s is based on the assumption that, whichever way the standoff over Ukraine is resolved, China stands to gain from the crisis. Yet such assumptions are fundamentally misconceived. For the Ukraine episode is a misfortune for Asia as a whole. And China may soon discover that, far from being an indirect beneficiary, the crisis in far-away Ukraine will confront Beijing with new and costly security challenges.

It’s easy to see why, at least in the short term, China may benefit from events in Ukraine. An isolated Russia subjected to Western sanctions will be far more willing to sell oil, gas and weapons to China on preferential terms. Igor Sechin, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s top energy boss, admitted as much in comments to the media recently.

A United States concerned with handling a European crisis will have far less time to deal with its ‘pivot’ to Asia. And, although nobody in China suggests that Beijing should copy the Russian model of grabbing territory, the fact that the Russian action has met with no serious reaction from the US must serve as an inspiration for Chinese strategists who hope that their country may one day be able to resolve its own territorial disputes in a similar manner. For, if the Russians can subdue Crimea, a relatively large territory with two million inhabitants, in a few days and without firing a shot in anger, why can’t China do the same to a few strings of uninhabited rocks?

All very true, but only part of the story. For, the more one looks at the potential ramifications of Ukraine, the higher the fears that everyone in Asia – including the Chinese – will be affected by this European crisis.  The fact that force was used to change borders in Europe may not alarm China unduly. But the methods which Russia resorted to in occupying Crimea and the justifications it made for this action should elicit deep concern, even in Beijing.

Threatening China’s Interests

For Russia claimed to itself a right to use force in any neighbouring country where ethnic Russians may be in danger, and is now distributing Russian passports to all its diaspora in order to reinforce this claim. Russia also held a snap referendum in Crimea in order to justify the incorporation of that Ukrainian province into Russian territory, elevating what it likes to call ‘self-determination’ as a principle justifying territorial changes.

Both these ideas are toxic for Asian security. The Russian model of offering ‘protection’ to its co-nationals may become attractive to some Chinese nationalists who are already arguing that Beijing has not done enough to protect ethnic Chinese in other countries. But the more someone in Beijing may be tempted to copy the Russian example, the more ethnic Chinese throughout Asia will be treated with suspicion; the nexus between ethnic minorities and their so-called ‘mother state’ was responsible for unleashing two world wars in Europe.

And holding referendums in order to decide borders is precisely the kind of principle China does not want to see established. For the results of such a vote in, say, Xinjiang or Tibet are fairly predictable. And, while China has the resources necessary to ensure these votes never take place, what can Beijing do if the fashion for referendums is picked up in Taiwan and Hong Kong?

Nor are many of the strategic benefits which China assumes it can derive from the Ukraine crisis that real. Take the prospect of increased deliveries of Russian oil and gas as an example. It is true that, as Europe seeks to diversify its supplies away from a hostile Russia, the Russians will be forced to sell their energy products to China, their next big market. And it’s equally true that in this buyers’ market, the Chinese will be able to call the price.  But shifting supplies away from Europe to Asia is a gigantic task: Russia will have to build the same networks of pipelines which it currently has in Europe, an effort which won’t leave much change from an estimated US$50 billion, and will require years, if not decades.

Meanwhile, China may be called upon to defend the energy resources it has already secured in Central Asia. Until now, the Chinese were winning the battle for influence in Central Asia against the Russians, the region’s old colonial masters, in a patient, peaceful way, through offers of trade opportunities which Russia can never match.

But victory in Ukraine may encourage the Russians to reassert their influence in Central Asia, where large pockets of ethnic Russians live: the northern part of Kazakhstan, Central Asia’s biggest and richest nation, is entirely dominated by ethnic Russians who can be easily incorporated into Russia proper especially since, like in Ukraine, Russia can use military bases it already has throughout the region for this purpose. In short, the Ukraine crisis can make China’s northern borders with Central Asia less, rather than more secure.

Western Alliances Strengthen

But the most important error which the Chinese or anyone else in Asia could make is to assume that the Ukraine crisis will translate into a reduced Asian footprint for the US, or in a diminished American global reputation. Barring an actual war with Russia which nobody currently predicts, the US can contain Russian power in Europe without pouring in new military resources, by simply galvanising its European allies in the NATO alliance to do things differently. A shift of NATO bases and soldiers from their current western European locations to the territory of central and eastern Europe will be relatively swift and cheap, but sufficient to pin down the Russian military down for years to come.

So the Ukraine crisis may end up have no impact on the ‘rebalancing’ of US forces to Asia which could continue; indeed, the pivot may actually intensify if, as a result of the current showdown with Russia, the US Congress refuses to accept the cuts which President Barack Obama has pencilled in for America’s armed forces.

Nor is it true, as some Chinese analysts have privately suggested, that America’s  decision to do nothing in response to Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine has devalued the credibility of the US security guarantees to other nations. For Ukraine was not a member of either NATO or the European Union, and the US pledge to that country’s security was in the realm of the moral, rather than legal. What the Ukraine episode has shown is that, as Professor Victor Cha of Georgetown University in the US shrewdly put it, ‘power matters less than commitment’: as powerful as the US remains, it was not committed enough to Ukraine’s security to use its formidable strength to defend that country’s integrity.

Yet the lesson which Asian nations will draw from this is not that US security guarantees are now worthless but, rather, that in order to make sure that such guarantees remain effective, Washington’s Asian partners will have to work harder to reinforce US commitment to their security. And that’s precisely what Japan and South Korea – to name but a few of the region’s nations – are now doing.

Nobody should therefore see the Ukraine crisis as anything but a misfortune, and the response may be a tightening of alliances with the US and a greater quest for regional collective security arrangements, as the only structures capable of preventing a repetition of a Ukraine-like scenario in Asia.



Jonathan Eyal

Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships

RUSI International

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