At a March 24 press briefing, Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes described the U.S. government’s diplomatic strategy in responding to Moscow’s annexation of Crimea as “standing up and mobilizing the international community to isolate Russia.” Throughout this effort, China has received special U.S. attention due to prevailing concerns in Washington about the potential for a “new anti-American axis” between Moscow and Beijing. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations described China’s decision not to side with Moscow in vetoing a UN Security Council resolution condemning Russia as “very important.”
No surprise, then, that President Obama called Chinese President Xi in the early days of the crisis and discussed the issue with him again two weeks later on the sidelines of the Nuclear Security Summit in the Hague. Underscoring the apparent success of this engagement, the White House stressed repeatedly that the United States and China were on “the same page” and “agreed on the importance of upholding principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
This effort, however, is misguided. For starters, U.S. actions to court China and prevent a Sino-Russian alliance on Ukraine are unnecessary. As bad as such an alliance might be for the United States, it isn’t going to happen—on Ukraine or more broadly.
Despite threats from Moscow that it will redirect its engagement eastward following U.S. and EU sanctions, Russia does not view an alliance with China as either possible or desirable. The trade relationship is lopsided—70 percent of Russian exports to China consisted of oil and oil products in 2012—with many Russians afraid of becoming a raw materials appendage of China and getting only cheap consumer goods in return. Russia has refused to support China on its territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas. During a visit to Tokyo in 2012, the Russian National Security Council chair told reporters, “Russia will not takes sides” on China’s high-stakes confrontation with Japan over the Senkaku Islands.In fact, China’s assertive moves in the region have directly threatened Russian interests. In 2012 a Chinese ship severed a Gazprom exploration cable in an offshore gas field that Vietnam and China both claim.
Although Moscow conducts joint military exercises with Beijing, it maintains a robust deterrence posture toward China. Far from leaping into Beijing’s arms, Moscow is deepening security ties with China’s regional rivals, particularly India and Vietnam.Last year, Russia began delivery to Hanoi of Kilo-class submarines, significantly bolstering Vietnam’s ability to defend its claims in disputes with China in the South China Sea.
An anti-U.S. Sino-Russian coalition looks even worse from Beijing’s perspective. Beijing will not compromise its ties with Washington for Moscow’s sake: from China’s perspective the relationship with the United States remains arguably the essential component of its continued economic and political rise. China sees the United States as the only country capable of stymieing its ascent to great-power status; an unfettered pro-Russian tilt by Beijing would invite precisely the kind of U.S.-led coalition against China that it has been working so assiduously to avoid. Perhaps this is why the usually bombastic and nationalistic quasi-official Global Times newspaper warned on March 22 that “it is not wise for China to fuel confrontations with the West” by siding with Russia.
Yes, China and Russia have improved ties over the past twenty years and often cooperate on international issues, particularly to blunt Western efforts to promote human rights. But their relationship is profoundly transactional. Neither side is prepared to undermine its vital interests to please the other.
China was never going to endorse Russia’s actions in Ukraine because they undermine principles the Chinese have been trying to advance in international politics for decades.Unilateral military intervention is anathema to a country obsessed with its own territorial integrity and deeply worried about breaches of its sovereignty. Beijing needs to ensure that no country would feel it had the right to respond to a Ukraine-like crisis in the restive regions of Tibet, Xinjiang, or even Beijing, for instance in a rerun of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
And the Russian justification for the annexation—that the people of Crimea determined their own fate (joining Russia, of course) in the March 16 “referendum”—created a precedent for self-determination movements in and around China, especially Taiwan, a self-governing island of twenty-three million people that China claims. Beijing believes that a successful independence movement in Taiwan would pose the biggest threat to the future survival of the Chinese Communist Party. China’s National People’s Congress even passed a law in 2005 stating that the People’s Republic of China will “employ nonpeaceful means” to assert control over Taiwan in the event of a popular referendum for independence.
Were the current U.S. charm offensive just a matter of diplomatic niceties, it would be no harm, no foul. But courting Beijing this way is undermining U.S. positions that lie at the heart of critical and long-standing disagreements with China over the future of international politics and the fate of the Asia-Pacific region. Contrary to a March 10 White House statement, the United States does not agree with China “on the importance of upholding principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Rather, the right and responsibility to violate these principles for the protection of human rights is a core element of U.S. foreign policy, and arguably the principal difference between the two countries’ approaches to world affairs. The Obama administration should emphasize this divergence, not paper it over or act like the United States sides with China’s illiberal perspective.
Meanwhile, there are dangerous implications five thousand miles from Ukraine in Beijing’s backyard, where China is aggressively pursuing its own sovereignty claims over territories that are in some instances controlled by U.S. allies. The United States does not support the substance of or justification for China’s expansive sovereignty claims in the South and East China Seas. On this score, U.S. statements of sharing China’s perspective on these key principles have sent the wrong message to an Asia already worried about the commitment of a war-weary United States.
Not surprisingly, China wasted no time in turning the administration’s newfound professions of solidarity right back on the United States. Following the Obama-Xi meeting in The Hague, China’s official news service declared that President Xi had stressed to Obama that “the United States should honor its commitment to respect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity on the Taiwan and Tibet issues.”
Working with China on shared interests makes sense. But pretending we’re on the “same page” to woo Beijing on the Ukraine crisis does not. The implications for U.S. interests are far more real than concerns over a Sino-Russian alliance.
Samuel Charap (@scharap) is senior fellow for Russia and Eurasia at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Ely Ratner (@elyratner) is senior fellow and deputy director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (@CNASdc).
Image: Wikimedia Commons. Agencia Brasil/Roberto Stuckert Filho. CC BY 3.0.