Get Ready: China Could Pull a 'Crimea' in Asia

Could China emulate Russia's moves in Ukraine?

Zhang Wenmu [张文木] is a major fixture of the Chinese foreign policy debate.

Unlike many of his colleagues in the Beijing foreign policy scene, he does not frequent seminars and workshops with Western counterparts. He has remained noticeably apart from the "jet-set" of Beijing talking heads that are racking up thousands of airline miles with monthly visits to various think tanks in Washington.

Toiling away at Beihang University (previously the Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics), he lacks the academic pedigree of more famous Chinese strategists at Tsinghua, Peking, or Fudan Universities. But maybe this has only increased his reputation as a "real Chinese strategist" that refuses to be dazzled and charmed by Western institutions and doctrines.

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Zhang has unquestionably left a mark on Chinese strategy in the new century. He was one of China's first genuine "navalists," calling for Beijing to build an aircraft carrier well before other scholars were willing to get behind the new approach. His 2009 book On Chinese Sea Power [论中国海权] argues that Chinese global commercial power must have a formidable navy to support it, which may one day earn him the title of “China's Mahan.”

But even though many of Zhang's ideas now seem like conventional wisdom among Chinese strategists, he still has a unique approach and will occasionally articulate positions that go quite against the grain. For example, in 2009 he cautioned that China should avoid any major involvement in the South China Sea dispute, observing that such an approach might distract from the central goal of unification with Taiwan.

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Zhang continues to be a prolific writer. A lengthy essay of his appeared in a late 2014 issue of the prestigious Chinese academic journal International Politics [国际政治]. The essay was being republished, suggesting its importance. Its title is “The Meaning of the Ukraine Events for the World and also their Warning to China.”

An early edition of this Dragon Eye column revealed another eminent Chinese strategist suggesting that Putin was now very widely admired among Chinese. In that same column, I also demonstrated that at least some Chinese military thinkers similarly admired Russia's bold seizure of Crimea in early 2014.

In probing the thoughts of Zhang Wenmu on the Ukraine Crisis, this edition of Dragon Eye seeks for a deeper understanding of the impact of the major events in Eastern Europe on the evolving situation in the Asia-Pacific.

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According to Zhang’s rendering, Russia has won a major victory against the West and Putin is a master strategist. Zhang is not shy about proclaiming the Ukraine Crisis as affording a major “经验教训” [lesson of experience] for China. Zhang states that Moscow triumphed because for Russia, the Crimea is a matter of life and death, while for Europe it is simply one of many important issues. “For [Crimea], Russia would commit all its resources, but the West would not do so.” Zhang recognizes that many Soviet leaders were either reckless (e.g. Khrushchev) or excessively idealistic (e.g. Gorbachev), but he maintains that Putin has followed Stalin’s pattern of realism and even “克制” [restraint].

Appraising Russia’s geopolitical potential, Zhang surmises, “… historically, Russian power could not be projected very far, but as for reaching eastern Ukraine, there’s no problem at all.” He further suggests that the rise of Putin was, more or less, inevitable because “… a nation in the midst of crisis tends to produce its own vigorous leader.” But he explains that the basis of Putin’s success in “halting NATO’s eastward expansion” lies ultimately in the formation of “全民共识” [national consensus]. China may also develop such a powerful national consensus, asserts Zhang, with a similarly important geostrategic impact.

Now that Putin has halted NATO’s eastern march, Zhang writes “… Westerners begin to cast their gaze upon China. They will certainly demand an answer from China: where is China’s bottom line?  For China, the most offensive mistake made by Westerners is that they are extremely frivolous.”

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