Colum Lynch, Foreign Policy’s astute United Nations reporter, spies a gap between Beijing and Moscow on the latter’s invasion of Ukraine. “An unassuming, mid-level Chinese diplomat” announced China’s support for the new government in Kiev, saying, “We respect the choice made by the Ukrainian people on the basis of national conditions.” The Kremlin, on the other hand, has argued that the new government rose by a coup and is brimming with fascists. Lynch points out that this is hardly the first time such divergences have happened:
In earlier eras, China objected to the Brezhnev Doctrine, which was used to justify Russian invasions of Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979, on the grounds that it constituted unwarranted interference in the affairs of a sovereign nation. China also broke with Russia after it intervened in neighboring Georgia in 2008 and stripped the pro-Western government of its provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. In June 2009, Moscow vetoed a U.N. resolution authorizing the continued presence of nearly 150 U.N. peacekeepers in Georgia, effectively killing off a U.N. effort to monitor Georgia's border with the separatist territory. China abstained from the vote.
There is a difference of principle here—Elizabeth Economy, the Asia director at the Council on Foreign Relations, tells Lynch that “China has a pathological fear of other countries meddling in its internal affairs....Russia's actions clearly run up against China's central foreign policy tenet of non-interference in others' internal affairs.” But, importantly, there’s also a difference of interest. Joel Wuthnow noted that in our spaces on Tuesday, saying that
China has an interest in the long-term stability of Ukraine...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...
Those big agricultural investments are part of a broader Chinese push to secure more farmland around the world—vital for a state with a huge population and not much arable land. And the land lease, in eastern Ukraine, was tied to Chinese investment in Crimea. So the prospect of a separate Crimea or a divided Ukraine challenges not only the security of China’s investments, but the structure of the bargains that let them happen. What this adds up to, as Wuthnow states, is that “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.” And like Lynch and Economy, Wuthnow ties this to China's noninterference policy and to China's broader strategic anxieties about Russia. He suggests that China might be able to play a constructive role in resolving the Ukraine crisis.
There are echoes here of the Cold War era, in which the United States slowly came to recognize and exploit divergences between what were then the world’s two largest Communist states, beginning in earnest with Kissinger and Nixon’s “opening of China” in 1971-1972. Contrary to popular memory, this wasn’t a zero-sum strategy, one in which Washington and Beijing teamed up to stab Moscow in the back and slip away, cackling, with the spoils. Merely introducing a third player to the game changed each bilateral relationship—NSC staffer Winston Lord said that “by their willingness to engage in summit meetings with us, with Nixon going to China in February, 1972, and to Moscow in May, 1972, the Russians and Chinese were beginning to place a higher priority on their bilateral relations with us than on their dealings with their friends in Hanoi.” These reprioritizations would be helpful in resolving the Vietnam conflict, as they cut the intransigent North Vietnamese out of many key discussions. And, Lord noted, the opening to China had a positive effect on relations with Russia:
The idea would be to improve relations with Moscow, hoping to stir a little bit of its paranoia by dealing with China, never getting so engaged with China that we would turn Russia into a hostile enemy but enough to get the attention of the Russians. This effort, in fact, worked dramatically...
Could Obama take advantage of similar dynamics today, as space emerges between Moscow and Beijing? In Ukraine, there are obviously more important players than China—any final international resolution of the crisis will be between the Europeans and the United States on one side and the Russians on the other. In theory, the Chinese could mediate. That’s unlikely given their obvious unease with pushing Russia too hard and their generally passive approach to transnational diplomacy. But their quiet absence from their usual spot on Russia’s side in the Security Council, their disapproving scowl, these send messages. They make Russia’s deserved isolation more acute. Yet as long as the West takes a high-handed, liberatory approach to the crisis, China offers nothing more. They want to protect their investments, not human rights, and they get curiously nervous around movements that overthrow autocrats. If Beijing's silent mass is to tip the balance in our favor, we’ll need to focus more on a peaceful, orderly resolution to the crisis and less on triumphantly waving the banners of Western liberalism and of our own moral superiority.
Yet we seem to be more interested in banner-waving than in resolving the crisis. And this is a broader problem if we ever wish to work the China-Russia-America triangle again. As Dimitri Simes and Les Gelb observed last year, U.S. policy has often pushed China and Russia together as “an unintended consequence of American policies aimed at other objectives.” Failing to exploit the China-Russia gap here out of a desire to really stick it to Moscow would be only the latest example of this.