Over at The American Interest, Professor Mead is scratching his chin over China’s policy toward the Ukraine imbroglio. Influential voices such as the People’s Daily — a Chinese Communist Party affiliate — clamor for the leadership to back Russia. Meanwhile, Beijing remains officially noncommittal. A Foreign Ministry spokesman has called on the antagonists to “peacefully resolve” the crisis and “bring order back as soon as possible.”
Is China conflicted? ‘Tis a mystery. But not a very big one, as it turns out. There’s no intrinsic conflict between wishing for an orderly, pacific settlement to the dispute and siding with Russia in its quarrel with Ukraine. Indeed, such a posture is not just expedient for Beijing but true to China’s strategic traditions. It’s the posture I would recommend if — Gods of diplomacy forfend — I were advising Chinese officialdom.
Why? In part this is a philosophical matter. No one hates peace. Clausewitz observes that even aggressors love it. After all, he says, the prey can preserve peace and order — of a sort — by yielding to a predator’s demands without a fight. That’s precisely what the powerful want. So if outsiders side with the powerful, they in effect hope the weaker contender will submit meekly. They sincerely want to resolve crises peacefully, bringing back order as soon as possible. Harmony prevails.
Hence China’s official line. China famously prefers to win without fighting, and presumably prefers for its confederates to get their way without violence as well. The balance of forces positions Moscow to pull off such a hat trick in l’affaire Crimea. Indeed, to describe Russia as the odds-on favorite understates the lopsided nature of the struggle. By advocating for a peaceable settlement, then, Beijing is tacitly stating that it favors a peaceable settlement on Moscow’s terms. It prefers for Kiev to relent without bloodshed while the West stands aside. The onus, then, falls on Ukraine’s leadership.
And what could be more reasonable than that from China’s standpoint? Think about it. One big authoritarian power is trying to subdue a small democratic neighbor it regards as its rightful property. A neighboring big authoritarian power has vowed to subdue a small democratic neighbor it regards as its rightful property should nonviolent measures prove indecisive. There’s a natural political affinity there. Why not help make Eurasia safe for authoritarianism, especially if you can do so at trivial cost to yourself?
Furthermore, Beijing doubtless welcomes the precedent set by Moscow’s action. The uproar may subside, letting a new normal take hold. That was the case following the Russo-Georgian fracas a few years back. If so, Russia’s intervention in Ukraine could well reinforce the precedent that big powers may manage their environs by force. That would provide political top cover for China should it opt to use force against Taiwan at some future time. Likewise, it could prove helpful at the margins in East and South China Sea contingencies.
So China can have it both ways vis-á-vis Crimea. It can utter words befitting a peacemaker while at the same time backing up a kindred power in a situation similar to one Beijing may face someday. In turn it sets itself up to benefit. Nifty diplomatic maneuver, eh?