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Crimea: Ideals and Reality, Glory and Dreams

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Crimea: Ideals and Reality, Glory and Dreams

The Crimea incident reflects Putin’s domestic aspirations; China is well advised to stay neutral.

Crimea: Ideals and Reality, Glory and Dreams
Credit: Vladimir Putin image via Mark III Photonics /

By abstaining on the UN vote on Crimea, China made a good choice. I wonder, is China the most frequent abstainer from UN Security Council votes? Earlier, when China’s international clout was lower, abstaining from voting was always interpreted as a sign of helplessness and a desire to avoid trouble. However, now that China has grown strong, the interpretation is different. Now it seems that China is showing its strength and its strategic independence through abstention votes. The policy of “hiding one’s strength and biding one’s time” is the same way—when China was weak, it was the only choice, but now that China is strong it becomes a conscious, free choice. In the international chess match, the same phrase now has a completely different meaning.

Today we often hear people shout that China should get rid of the policy of “hiding one’s strength and biding one’s time,” because they take Vladimir Putin as their spiritual teacher. They point out that Putin dares to “say no” to the West and to the whole world. In their eyes, “saying no” is the same as abandoning the “hiding and biding” policy. However, the foreign policy of a state should be based on national interests, national security and national stability, and more importantly on economic development and the improvement of people’s lives. Who is not able to “say no”? During a time when many Chinese people were starving to death, our whole nation kept “saying no” to the world. Even those countries who wanted to provide aid to us were rejected with a “no.” Was it really that great?

Why does Putin want to “say no”? It’s because the West has no respect for him. Whether or not Putin “says no” makes little difference on the international stage. His “no” has never brought any benefits to Russia, so why does he keep saying it? The answer is that Putin’s “saying no” to the West is directed at a Russian audience—he wants to use this to build up a tough-guy image for himself and arouse the nationalistic mood among the Russian people. Afterwards, he can ensure that he can remain the “elected president” for his entire life. This is Putin’s dream.

Since Putin took office in 2000, international oil prices have been soaring. Putin took advantage of his good luck and stylized himself as “Putin the Great” who restored Russia’s glory…

Diplomatic relations can be roughly categorized into realism (utilitarianism) and idealism (led by ideology and philosophy). Although realism has been dominant in modern times, idealism has seemingly been everywhere and nowhere. I can distinguish the diplomatic practices of China and U.S. in this way: U.S. is a realist with ideals, while China is a realistic idealist. The “realism” of each country is more or less the same, but the ideals are not. The U.S. adores liberty and democracy while China worships the idea of a socialist democracy with Chinese characteristics. Despite its ideals, the U.S. often makes compromises in its philosophy for practical benefits. And although China is relatively realist, it sometimes makes some concessions in its realism to prioritize principles such as the stability of the state and the leadership of the ruling party.  It’s because of such compromises and concessions by the U.S. and China that “new type great power relations” becomes possible.

Russia, however, is a realist through and through. Of course, you can’t blame Russia for this…

Nevertheless, realism is not easy. As we all know, realist foreign policy relies on the strength of a state. What kind of strength does Russia have? The money from selling oil may be barely enough to improve people’s livelihood and therefore ensure that Putin wins consecutive terms, but this is not enough to impress the international community. But Putin is smarter than anyone else. Without ideals, and without the power to pursue realist goals abroad, Putin wanted to have the people consider him as a hero, to believe that without Putin they would be bullied by foreigners. And the only way to do that was to stoke up nationalism by habitually opposing the West and always having the word “no” on his lips.

That is why Putin has never hesitated in saying “no” to the West, especially the U.S., whenever he could. Although internationally such opposition amounts to nothing, he has enjoyed an increasingly higher reputation among the “Russian people” who grew up under the Soviet Union. In today’s Russia, which rarely mentions freedom and democracy but also doesn’t dare to raise Soviet ideology, “Putin” has become the “ideology” and “ideal” of the state. At this time, Crimea is just like manna from heaven, a God-given opportunity to Putin.

Putin just has to take Crimea. Meanwhile, considering Russia’s national interests and security, annexing Crimea had a hundred benefits and no harms. The West’s choices are extremely limited. Putin will never be afraid of military intervention. The Soviet Union was defeated in a clash of ideology and wills, not in real battles. With this in mind, Putin would rather resort to arms than confront the U.S. in a battle of ideals and convictions.

The U.S. knows this, and won’t resort to the use of force. As for economic sanctions, oil is the mainstay of Russia’s economy and (because shale gas in the U.S. has not started mass production) Russia’s oil is irreplaceable. And in terms of trade restrictions, don’t forget about China. Without the involvement of China, the world’s second largest economy, a country that can manufacture anything except sophisticated weapons (which Russia, incidentally, does make), how can economic sanctions work?

The timing of Russia’s confrontation with the U.S. is good for China not only in terms of economy and military “benefits,” but even more so in the political dimension. The “new type great power relations” between China and the U.S. is just waiting for a final push—this confrontation from Putin could help the U.S. to become more realistic and more sober-minded. America, don’t spend all day thinking about “peaceful evolution” in Beijing—China is just a panda; your “enemy” is a polar bear.

Someone may say that China should take this chance to ally with Russia in confronting the United States. I say to these people, you can’t defeat the U.S, so what’s the use of wasting human resources, materials, and energy? And allying with Russia is even less appealing—there’s no need to, and taking a long-term view there are too many variables to consider. When Putin steps down or dies, Russia will change overnight—at that time, when the Russian people have lost “Putin the Great,” will they have any choice other than embracing liberty and democracy? However, China has options and thus doesn’t need to tie itself to any great power.

The problems in Crimea are complicated and there’s some truth to each side. If you really want to separate right from wrong, you’ll probably find that there’s not even a unified standard to determine “right” and “wrong.” According to the constitution of Ukraine, the referendum of Crimea is certainly unlawful. But just like the pursuit of liberty and democracy, national self-determination can supersede any national constitution. Otherwise, how did so many colonized and newly established nations achieve their independence? And how did the 15 unified republics of the Soviet Union vote to secede regardless of the constitution of Soviet Union?

The complexity of Crimea also comes from this: Putin’s merging with Crimea not only broke the pattern of international relations in the post-Cold War era, but also went against the main trend of history in the past 100 years. What main trend of history? As everyone knows, in the past 100 years, almost all the great empires have disintegrated (including China, as when Russia helped Outer Mongolia split off). These empires have broken up into smaller nations. This trend began with colonized areas one by one gaining independence, and continued up until the collapse of Soviet Union. Looking back over many years, Russia’s annexation of Crimea is the only case in which a great power acquired so a large piece of territory in an instant (of course, this does not include the large piece of land which was stolen from China’s hands by Russia in the past). Only the God who gave this manna to Russia knows what price Russia will pay for this in the future.

The best choice for China in the Crimea problem is to make no choice; the best stance for China is not to take sides. China needs a peaceful international environment. In the future, China should both develop with the U.S. a no-confrontation, no-conflict, win-win “new type great power relationship.” But China should also develop a “new type great power relationship” with Russia that is neutral, not an alliance. In addition, China should focus on developing multilateral relationships with Europe, the Americas, and Australia, while at the same time putting more efforts and investing more energy into improving relations with neighboring countries. If those major relationships are well managed, even if the world experiences more “Crimea incidents,” how could it have a big impact on China’s interests and dreams?

This piece originally appeared in Chinese on Yang Hengjun’s blog. The original post can be found here.

Yang Hengjun is a Chinese independent scholar, novelist, and blogger. He once worked in the Chinese Foreign Ministry and as a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC. Yang received his Ph.D. from the University of Technology, Sydney in Australia. His Chinese language blog is featured on major Chinese current affairs and international relations portals and his pieces receive millions of hits. Yang’s blog can be accessed at