As I noted last week, one of the more interesting aspects of the international response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea was the reaction of emerging powers like China and India.
Despite the importance they have long placed on respect for sovereignty, all the emerging nations refused to criticize Russia’s seizure of territory belonging to Ukraine. Some, most notably India but also China to a lesser degree, came out in strong support of Russia. As I pointed out last week, this support was all the more surprising given that most of the emerging powers have potential secessionist groups within their borders. Why would China support Russia when Crimea declaring independence from Ukraine might inspire China’s Uyghurs, Tibetans and even people in Hong Kong?
As The Naval Diplomat and others have pointed out, Russia’s annexation of Crimea also could also benefit China in its territorial disputes throughout the Asia-Pacific. Indeed, there has been a lot of concern among U.S. allies and partners in the region that Russia’s seizure of Crimea will embolden China. This concern grew so vocal that a number of American officials have now openly warned China against trying to use the Russian model to advance its claims vis-à-vis Taiwan, the Senkaku Islands or in the South China Sea.
To my mind, this concern is largely overblown. True, Russia’s seizure of Crimea could weaken the supposed long-standing international norm against realigning one’s borders by force, which China could someday use to its advantage. At the same time, the actual model Russia used to annex Crimea offers little advantage to China in its territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas. Those territorial disputes are over uninhabited islands, rocks and reefs. China cannot seize the islands by claiming a need to protect ethnic Chinese residents, as Russia did with Crimea. Nor could it hold a referendum on joining the Chinese state.
The Russian model could prove useful to China in Taiwan, of course, if the Taiwanese people vote to become a part of China. This, however, seems increasingly unlikely to happen anytime in the foreseeable future. Moreover, China hardly needed Russia’s annexation of Crimea to make that solution to the Taiwan issue plausible to the international community. The U.S. has long supported peaceful unification and it’s unlikely any foreign powers would interfere if the Taiwanese voted to join mainland China in a free and fair election.
None of this is to suggest that Russia’s annexation of Crimea is entirely irrelevant to China. In fact, China could almost certainly use this model to its advantage in the future, with enormous and ominous implications for East Asia.
Specifically, China could use it to justify intervening in most Southeast Asian nations, almost all of which have notable ethnic Chinese populations. Singapore, for example, has an ethnic Chinese majority and is positioned along the crucial Malacca Strait. One could imagine if relations between Malaysia and Singapore deteriorated to the point of conflict, at some point, China could justify intervening on behalf of Singapore because of that country’s ethnic Chinese population. It’s also possible that if Singapore tries to transition to democracy and chaos ensues, Beijing will seize upon that chaos to intervene.
Malaysia also has a significant ethnic Chinese population, which has historically been at odds with the majority Islamic Malay population. Crucially, in many areas the ethnic Chinese population in Malaysia is geographically isolated from the Malay and Indian populations, much as ethnic Russians dominated Crimea without comprising a majority of Ukraine proper. Should an Islamic Malaysian government try to appeal to its base by harshly repressing the ethnic Chinese population, one could easily envision China intervening to protect the latter. This perhaps could lead to China trying to annex parts of Malaysia, or at least insisting on their independence.
The same sort of scenarios could be envisioned in much of Southeast Asia, albeit to differing degrees. Of particular note, oversea Chinese account for about 5 percent of Indonesia’s population, 7 percent of Cambodia’s, and a notable but undetermined amount of Burma’s population. In Indonesia and Burma, ethnic Chinese are also disproportionally represented among the wealthiest business classes, which could make them the target of populist leaders.
Perhaps the most interesting possibility is that China could use Russia’s model in Crimea against Moscow itself. As The Diplomat has covered in the past, recent years has seen significant Chinese emigration and investment in Russia’s sparsely populated Far Eastern regions, which border on China. The demographics are daunting; whereas only 7.4 million Russians populate the Far East, China’s three northwestern provinces are home to about 110 million people. And Russia’s rapid population decline will hamper Moscow’s efforts to more densely populate its Fat East in the future. Furthermore, parts of Russia’s Far East historically belonged to China just as Crimea historically belonged to Russia. China also has a strong incentive to annex Russia’s Far East given its natural resource wealth.
Vladimir Putin or his successors could one day come to greatly regret Russia’s annexation of Crimea indeed.