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:

Pages