By Christopher S. Chivvis and Bonny Lin, Special to CNN
Editor's note: Christopher S. Chivvis is a senior political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation and expert in European and Eurasian security issues. You can follow him @cchivvis. Bonny Lin is an associate political scientist at RAND and an expert on Asia-Pacific security issues. The views expressed are their own.
At Sunday night's emergency U.N. Security Council meeting, Western countries denounced Russian efforts to destabilize eastern Ukraine. Depending on your reading of its statement, China either refused to do the same, or refused to back Russia. Either way, the meeting was just the latest example of how the Ukraine crisis has put China in a bind.
Russia has tried to parry U.S. threats of isolation by talking up the possibility of a closer Sino-Russian alliance. But while there is some concern that Chinese hardliners could seek to use Crimea as a precedent for moves against disputed territories in the Asia-Pacific has others worried, Sunday's meeting suggests concerns should not be overplayed.
To be sure, it will be hard for China to take a tough position against Russia for several reasons. Geopolitically, China shares a long border with Russia, which it views as a key trading and strategic partner. President Xi Jinping's first foreign visit as head of state was to Russia and Xi made developing closer relations with Russia a foreign policy priority. In the event of a U.S.-China confrontation, Beijing would likely hope to be able to rely on Moscow for neutrality, and, if necessary, a supply of energy and other war essential resources.
China and Russia also share a common concern about perceived U.S. efforts to contain their influence. As in Russia, strategic distrust of the United States often runs high in China, where hawks have long worried about the United States inciting Chinese separatist forces. Perhaps most of all, increased U.S.-Russian tension may serve China well if it hampers U.S. rebalancing and diverts U.S. resources and attention from the Asia-Pacific, where the United States is backing allies and partners seen by Beijing as aggressively escalating territorial disputes and tensions.
Still, China is very unlikely to come down unequivocally in Russia's camp on Ukraine.
Why? To begin with, Russia's use of a referendum to break Crimea away from Ukraine contradicts one of the core tenets of Chinese foreign policy: mutual respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty and non-aggression and non-interference in another country's internal affairs. China does not support referendums or attempts by domestic groups to seek independence. Similarly, China has never annexed an undisputed territory of a neighboring country in order to protect the territory's ethnic Chinese majority.
On the surface, one might expect China to support Russia's annexation of Crimea in order to bolster its own claims to Taiwan and disputed territories. But Russia's relationship to Crimea is fundamentally different than any of China's disputed claims. On Taiwan, not only is the military challenge radically different, but Taiwan is an island that China claims authority over, not part of another state.
More fundamentally, the Crimea referendum could be viewed as a protest against the established order and Beijing may well worry that Russian actions will encourage challenges to the Chinese Communist Party's authority at home. Beijing may also be wary that the Crimea or any future referendums in Ukraine could be used as a precedent for similar votes in Taiwan, Xinjiang, and Tibet – any of which would amount to a crisis for Beijing. In other words, China likely sees the Crimea referendum more from the perspective of Kiev than Moscow.
Similarly, while some hawkish Chinese netizens may laud Russian President Vladimir Putin for taking a tough stand against the imperialist West, the Chinese leadership is likely to view Russia's policy as overly aggressive. Chinese military strategists have prided themselves on never occupying foreign territory or invading other countries for purposes other than self-defense. China opposes countries that attempt to use force or intimidation to challenge the sovereignty of other independent states. Importantly, China did not support Russia in its invasion of Georgia in 2008.
All this suggests that Russia's claim that it will seek a closer relationship with China in the event the West isolates it is likely to continue to meet with a very cautious response from Beijing. As much as China may wish to lean on Russia should Beijing find itself at odds with the United States, Xi seeks a new type of great power relationship with the United States that calls for mutual respect, no confrontation, and cooperation. China wants – and some even argue needs – to have good relations with the United States and the international community as it continues to grow. The United States and the European Union are also China's largest trade partners. An embrace of Russia at this time could cost China much global goodwill.
Finally, China does have a relationship with Ukraine that is not irrelevant. It had strong ties on trade, agricultural partnerships, and the military, and will want to see those ties endure under the new Ukrainian government. Xi has also made combating corruption a key domestic agenda. Given that cronyism was a key factor in Yanukovych's demise, it would not be easy for Xi to appear to side with him without negative domestic blowback.
If China hesitates to tilt toward Russia on Crimea, this will not, of course, be a sign that it is ready to join the West in a full condemnation of Russian policy, much less support harsh sanctions or military measures. Even if Russia invades Ukraine proper, Beijing may hesitate to publicly denounce Russia and prefer to sit on the sidelines, as it did in the 2008 Russia-Georgia war. Chinese strategists will question whether Beijing has the leverage needed to convince Putin to change course. In general, China has little appetite for entanglement in conflict far from its borders, especially given multiple challenges in its own neighborhood.
The Chinese view of the crisis does suggest, however, that China's growing role in the world, grounded in globalization, will encourage it to avoid playing a destabilizing role as the crisis evolves. A refusal by China to back Russia on Crimea may not be a de facto backing of the U.S. position, but it might help discourage Russia from further aggression.