Chinese media has covered the evolving situation in Ukraine with interest, in part because China has a vested interest in Ukraine’s fate. Now, the world is returning the scrutiny. In the wake of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to send troops to the Crimean Peninsula, it seems the world is taking sides on the Ukrainian issue. And everyone wants to know where China stands—one of the perils of being a major power.
On Sunday, after the Russian Federation Council authorized the use of armed forces in Ukraine, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang issued a special statement on the situation. “China is deeply concerned about the current situation in Ukraine,” Qin said. He called on “the relevant parties in Ukraine to resolve their internal disputes peacefully within the legal framework.” As for external interference in the Ukraine, Qin emphasized that China respects “the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine” and said that a solution should be found “based on respect for international law and norms.”
However, Qin also cryptically said that “there are reasons for why the situation in Ukraine is what it is today.” Qin didn’t go into detail about what those reasons might be, but Chinese media sources offered some suggestions. A Xinhua commentary argued that the West’s “biased mediation has polarized Ukraine and only made things worse in the country.” The article said that the West should work together with Russia to find a solution, and “stop trying to exclude Russia from the political crisis they failed to mediate.”
Further, the Xinhua commentary had no criticism for Russia’s decision to send troops to Crimea. “It is quite understandable when Putin said his country retained the right to protect its interests and Russian-speakers living in Ukraine,” the commentary said. Rather than opposing the move, the West should “respect Russia’s unique role in mapping out the future of Ukraine.”
The Global Times took a realist (and cynical) view of the situation, arguing that “the Ukrainian situation shows us clearly that in the international political arena, principles are decided by power.” The article argued that the Ukrainian opposition and the pro-Yanukovych, pro-Russian elements both only seem to gain legitimacy after they are able to assert their dominance. The article came to a rather strange conclusion: comparing the situation in the Ukraine to the “double standards” Washington applies to U.S.-China relations. “There is no logic” in those arguments (presumably referring to U.S. human rights critiques of China), “only that the U.S. is still the more powerful player.”
The juxtaposition of U.S.-China relations with the Ukraine crisis helps clarify China’s position. It’s hard to see how Russian troops entering Crimea meshes with China’s principle of non-interference, not to mention Beijing’s avowed respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. However, China is far from the only nation to bend its principles in favor of realpolitik. Denouncing Putin’s decision to send troops to Ukraine would jeopardize the evolving partnership between Beijing and Moscow. Worse, standing against Moscow would mean China was standing with the West—which could be taken as implicit support for the Ukrainian opposition forces that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych.
Meanwhile, China is leery of “color revolutions,” including Ukraine’s own “Orange Revolution” in 2004. The Chinese government has long speculated that the “color revolutions” were instigated by Western nations to oust unfriendly regimes—and Beijing itself remains wary that the U.S. is trying to foment another color revolution within China. Many in China now argue that Ukraine’s “Orange Revolution” papered over fissures that are springing to the forefront in the current tensions. To Beijing, Western intervention (both 10 years ago and today) is directly responsible for the current violence.
As a result, China has decided to back Russia—at least according to Russia’s Foreign Ministry. The Voice of Russia, citing a FM statement, said that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi had a telephone conversation Monday wherein they noted “the coincidence of Russia’s and China’s positions on the situation in Ukraine.”
China’s own Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang was a bit more circumspect in his Monday press conference. “China upholds its own diplomatic principles and the basic codes for international relations,” Qin said. However, he added that “we have also taken the historical and contemporary factors of the Ukraine issue into consideration.” In others words, Qin said, China stands fast to its principles while also “seeking truth from facts” (实事求是).
China’s ambiguous position reveals its dilemma. Beijing’s instinct is to back Moscow, both to uphold the fruitful cooperation between these two nations and to stand firm against pressure from the West. However, vocally supporting Russia would violate China’s principle of non-interference. More importantly, it could arguably set a precedent of Chinese support for military intervention to protect separatists unhappy with their government—which goes against all China’s instincts, given its own issues with Tibet and Xinjiang provinces. Yet as the Global Times put it, at the end of the day power calculations mean more than principles. China’s geopolitical strategy requires Beijing to at least tacitly support Russia, and at the end of the day that argument outweighs more abstract philosophical concerns.