Neither Russia’s intervention in Georgia in 2008, nor that in Ukraine in 2014, have infringed upon vital Chinese interests. The former was below the radar of Beijing’s foreign policy and China reacted soberly to the latter. Ukraine has, though, certainly been more noticeable, not least because the country provided the Chinese military with technologies (including the first aircraft carrier) and was to supply it with grain. Beijing demonstrated self-restraint with regard to ties with Kiev, taking Russia’s interests into account.
Nevertheless, both cases of the use of military force by Russia have left Beijing feeling uneasy and have complicated foreign policy-making. China has carefully avoided a for-or-against choice on Russia and has preferred to keep a low profile.
The main problem China recognises is that Russia’s behaviour may fuel separatism, which Beijing considers its most serious challenge. Long gone are the times when both states supported each other against separatism (the triad of Taiwan, Tibet and Chechnya). The Kremlin does not seem to be wary of separatist forces and the relatively cost-free detachment of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia has made it even more self-confident. China, meanwhile, has grown even more wary of separatist forces. The 2010 Russian-Chinese bilateral declaration included Moscow’s support for China’s policy not only with regard to Taiwan and Tibet, but also Xinjiang. Moreover, the form of Russia’s support for Crimean separatism – a declaration by its inhabitants expressed in a referendum – creates a precedent which may be detrimental to China’s core interests. It may reinforce those sections of Taiwanese society which would like to have freedom to decide about the status of the island. It thus seems implausible that China will accept either Crimea’s independence or its annexation by Russia. It should also be expected that China will support other post-Soviet states in opposing any formal recognition of a Russia-imposed status quo, just as Beijing enabled the Central Asian members of the SCO to resist Russian pressure to recognise South Ossetia and Abkhazia in 2008.
The Ukrainian crisis is, however, far from clear-cut from Beijing’s perspective. The revolution in the Maidan is regarded as a Western-led conspiracy which overthrew the legal government (in a similar way to the Colour revolutions). Beijing perceived the protests in Tibet in 2008 and in Xinjiang in 2009 as having been inspired from abroad. The success of a democratic and popular protest does not bode well for China’s ruling party. Seen in this light, Russia’s intervention in Crimea is considered to be a ‘proper response’ to Western subversion, and China could implicitly support such methods.
Finally, the Western reaction, and in particular that of the USA, to the Russian intervention, offers Beijing a unique ‘laboratory’. Asserting its territorial claims in the East and South China Seas in an increasingly aggressive manner, China can be expected to draw lessons from the Western response to the use of military force, equally as it now observes the West’s reaction to the implicit Russian threat of full-scale invasion.
Given the complexity of Chinese interests, it should not come as a surprise that Beijing is avoiding taking a clear stance. The question is whether such a reaction can lead to any changes in China’s relations with Russia. Will the absence of unambiguous support make Russia revise its approach to China? The Georgian War did not harm the ever closer relations between Russia and China. Moscow seems to have reconciled itself to the absence of support from China for the independent status of Abkhazia and South Ossetia as it has got used to Beijing’s increased leverage within the SCO. The Crimean issue could lead to similar results. While not supporting Russia, Beijing has no reasons to condemn its actions.
On the other hand, however, China could be tempted to pressure Russia, which faces the perspective of semi-isolation from the West. Beijing could make additional adjustments in their bilateral relations and tilt it even more to its advantage. According to the Japanese media, China asked for Moscow’s support in the dispute with Japan, concerning the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands (offering in return support for Russia’s stance with regard to the Kuril Islands). So far, Russia has seemed uninterested. The need to gain support in the dispute with the West over Crimea could force Moscow to revise its approach and give in to Beijing’s demands.
What are the consequences for the contemporary international order? The 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the WWI makes comparisons tempting (see the thought-provoking piece by Margaret Macmillan in International Affairs). The road from a minor crisis to war between great powers is indeed a short one.
The Russo-Chinese relationship is often depicted in the West in terms of a quasi-alliance hostile to the US and Europe. Conversely, Russia and China present their relations as the ‘stabilising factor of international politics’. As the Crimean case demonstrates, neither depiction is precise. But, paradoxically, the limitations of ties between Russia and China revealed by the Crimean crisis strengthen international stability. Both Moscow and Beijing tend to avoid mutual obligations which would make them hostage to each other’s territorial claims. Consequently, Russia and China are forced to pursue their assertive policies with much more caution. The situation, analogous to the one described by Margaret Macmillan in the heyday of the WWI seems a very distant prospect:
‘Germany found itself backing its weaker partner of Austria–Hungary because it did not want to risk losing its one sure ally; that meant it was drawn into Austria–Hungary’s rivalry with Russia in the Balkans. Not for the last time Germany was to discover that the stronger power cannot always control its weaker partner. Yet Germany could not easily abandon the alliance for fear of losing prestige.’