What Does China Really Think about the Ukraine Crisis?

September 4, 2014 Topic: Domestic PoliticsForeign Policy Region: ChinaUkraine

What Does China Really Think about the Ukraine Crisis?

Introducing a new occasional series focusing on analysis of original Chinese writings.


Editor’s Note: The following is part of a new occasional series named “Dragon Eye” which seeks insight and analysis from Chinese writings on world affairs.

As the Ukraine crisis enters an even more intense phase, it has been conventional wisdom for some time among Western strategists that China is actually the biggest winner of the new and grave tensions in Eastern Europe. Not only has it benefited from a landmark gas agreement with Russia, but, so the logic goes, the new tension in U.S.-Russian relations may sap dynamism from the erstwhile Asia-Pacific rebalance, while encouraging Moscow to increase its cooperation in all respects with Beijing. China has generally adopted a low key approach to the crisis itself, calling simply for restraint and a negotiated solution.


A key question that arises, however, is whether or not Chinese leaders are recalibrating their strategy to mirror Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive approach. Put simply, does Beijing see the Ukraine Crisis as demonstrating the West’s weakness when confronted by a determined and capable challenger? Eminent Chinese specialist on international affairs Prof. Wang Jisi of Peking University said in a June 2014 interview with 财经 [Finance and Economics] magazine that Putin was the foreign leader that Chinese admired most. While calling for a more cautious and restrained approach himself, Wang also offers that Putin’s popularity in China reflects a general desire for “strong man politics” and adopting an “iron wrist [sic] diplomacy.”

Here, of course, it will not be possible to answer definitively the question regarding the eastern reverberations of the Ukraine Crisis. Chinese writings about the on-going crisis are voluminous. Nevertheless, a “dip-stick” test regarding the tone of internal Chinese discussions may be attempted by summarizing a lengthy interview concerning the Ukraine Crisis, published in the July 2014 issue of Ordnance Science and Technology [兵工科技] with Senior Colonel Fang Bing [房兵大校], a professor at Chinese National Defense University in Beijing.

In attempting to understand the historical and cultural meaning of the contemporary Ukraine Crisis, Colonel Fang employs a fascinating analogy between Russian and Chinese strategic geography. He asserts, “For Russians, the loss of Ukraine would be even more serious than if China were to lose Taiwan. This would be more akin to China losing the Yellow River Valley, or to losing Shaanxi Province – such a well-spring of culture.” He also stresses that the process of NATO expansion that took place after the collapse of the USSR had been a “bitter pill” for Russia to swallow since its “strategic space was contracting …”

According to this analysis, Moscow was able to justify it seizure of Crimea since it could claim that the Ukrainian opposition had employed illegal methods rather than legal electoral means to gain power. Notably, this Chinese commentator expresses no special concern regarding the potential for setting precedents for modern states to be split asunder. Many Western analysts had previously thought Beijing could be truly conflicted about the Ukraine Crisis as a result of this concern. Instead, Colonel Fang seems to express a certain admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s resolve and decisiveness. But he says that the annexation of Crimea was not simply Putin’s own decision, but rather represented the “common will of all of Russia.”

On a more tactical level, this Chinese military analyst notes the Russian employment of paratroopers as a so-called “rapid reaction force,” and also the significance of special forces units. He also observes that Moscow has held extensive heavy, mechanized units as a reserve force in case the situation deteriorates further. Finally, the Chinese have apparently taken a close interest in how the Russian military has also carried out large exercises in parallel and to complement the movement into the Crimea.

With respect to Moscow’s ultimate aims in the current crisis, Colonel Fang seems to believe that Russia has seized Crimea as a “bargaining chip.” He suggests that the ultimate resolution of the crisis might be for the Crimea’s status to resemble that of South Ossetia (formally separate from the Russian Federation, but enjoying a high level of autonomy within a neighboring country). In an apparent expression of support for Russian actions, Colonel Fang asks that given the power vacuum in Kiev, “… who can say what is legal?” In addition, he writes: “[The Ukrainian opposition] … went too far … not anticipating that Russia would have such an intense reaction.”

At the same time, this Chinese military analyst doubts that a major war will ensue between Ukraine and Russia. The interview was undertaken, of course, before the latest round of seemingly direct hostilities near Mariupol. But Colonel Fang predicts that Moscow will not initiate such a conflict, because doing so “would only have negative results.” Colonel Fang observes that both sides have acted “to preserve a certain degree of restraint …” in the current crisis. He also makes note of the special role that Berlin is playing in the crisis. However, it is not surprising that this Chinese commentator seems most interested in the U.S. role in the evolving situation, offering the claim, for example, that Washington had already spent $5 billion on the crisis as of July 2014.

For the purposes of gauging whether Chinese strategists have gained confidence from the Ukraine Crisis, one section of Colonel Fang’s interview is especially interesting. To his estimate, the U.S. has few military cards to play in the present crisis. He compares the current situation to Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008, and asks quite rhetorically of that set of circumstances: “What could the U.S. really do then to help Georgia?” U.S. ships daring to enter the Black Sea would confront “Russia’s very formidable land-based air power…” Similarly, in the present crisis, Colonel Fang notes that the American aircraft carrier USS George W. Bush has passed through the Strait of Gibraltar, but he suggests that this is purely symbolic. “An aircraft carrier group daring to enter the Black Sea … would be akin to a person locked inside a house…”

For Colonel Fang, Russia has the initiative. The U.S. lacks military options, and “Russia does not fear,” according to this Chinese analysis. Russia’s “actual control” over Crimea is a decisive factor in the present crisis that the Chinese have not missed. True, some other Chinese analysts have been more circumspect, pointing to the prospect of major losses to the Russian economy (国际问题研究, April 2014), but many others, such as a Xinhua Russian expert writing in May 2014, seem to follow Colonel Fang’s interpretation and admire “Russia’s rejection of the West’s global leadership, its defense of its core interests, and its lack of hesitation in becoming the enemy of the West.” (军事文摘, May 2014) It might be impossible to determine definitively whether the Ukraine Crisis has impacted China’s risk calculus in hotspots such as the South and East China Sea, but the evidence discussed above certainly suggests that such eastern reverberations are quite plausible.

Lyle J. Goldstein is Associate Professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI. The opinions expressed in this analysis are his own and do not represent the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. Government.

Image: Kremlin website