Sorry, China Isn’t Winning in Ukraine

The argument that the Ukraine crisis presents a huge opportunity for Beijing is critically flawed.

Sorry, China Isn’t Winning in Ukraine
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Since Russia annexed Crimea last month, some Chinese commentators have argued that China can gain a lot from the crisis, and even posit that the crisis could represent a second “strategic opportunity period” for Beijing. A number of American commentators concur, arguing that China is the only winner in the Ukraine crisis.

The logic behind this argument is that Crimea could spark a second Cold War between Russia and the West, which would force the U.S. to shift its attention back to Europe. This, in turn, would greatly reduce pressure on China in Asia. Moreover, were a second Cold War to take root, both Russia and the U.S. want China’s backing, giving Beijing more maneuvering room in its grand strategy.

While there some truth to this argument, ultimately it suffers from two critical flaws.

First, relations between the West and Russia are unlikely to deteriorate as badly as proponents of this argument would have you believe. In fact, neither Russia nor the West has the interest or the capabilities to deepen the crisis further.

The Russian side still needs the West as an export market for its energy resources. Already Russia is feeling the pain of economic sanctions imposed by the West, sanctions that would tighten greatly should the crisis worsen. Indeed, Russia moved to annex Crimea not because its power is expanding; rather it was because Russia’s power is declining. From a structural point of view, Russia is indeed doomed. The Russian economy’s heavy dependence on energy exports is not sustainable in the long run, especially as new technologies will enable Europe to become more energy independent. In this sense, Russia’s annexation of Crimea was likely more defensive than offensive in nature. Furthermore, even if Russia wanted to start a new Cold War, it simply lacks adequate military and economic capabilities to do so.

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Similarly, the Western side does not have the will or capabilities to strategically contain Russia. The U.S. is still struggling to recover economically and defense cuts mean that the U.S. cannot afford another Cold War with Russia. Moreover, some strategic thinkers in the U.S. have already pointed out that America’s real potential adversary is China, not Russia. The U.S. should not and will not go to war with Russia over Crimea or Ukraine simply because it is not worth it to Washington. At most, the U.S. will temporarily reinforce its military posture in Eastern Europe to reassure countries like Poland and the Baltic states.

The EU is hardly more willing to challenge Russia over Crimea. Germany depends on Russian natural gas and thus cannot truly “get tough” on Russia, whereas France and the UK value commercial relations with Russia more than they value Crimea.

So long as Russia doesn’t invade eastern Ukraine, tensions between Moscow and the West are likely to deescalate over the next year or two. Russia and the West will not start a new Cold War. The most likely scenario down the road is that Ukraine will become a buffer state between Russia and the West. In fact, Putin has already stated that he does not intended to annex eastern Ukraine. This does not mean that he will never pursue this option, only that he is unlikely to do it anytime soon.

The other problem with the argument that China is the major benefactor in the Ukraine crisis is that even if both the U.S. and Russia sought China’s backing, China has very little to realistically offer either side. China is in a very awkward situation with regard to Ukraine. China cannot support Russia openly because of its own worries over Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang. At the same time, China cannot openly support the West because of the domestic implications of popular uprisings like the one in Ukraine.

Thus, even if both Russia and the U.S. wanted China’s help, there is little China could offer either power. It is very likely, then, that in the end both Russia and the West will be angered by China’s failure to back them. China does not want this outcome and it has thus avoided getting in the middle of the two sides, as demonstrated by its decision to abstain from the UN General Assembly resolution on the Crimea reference.

In short, despite some Chinese commentators’ optimism, there are few potential gains to be had for Beijing in the current standoff over Crimea. A second “strategic opportunity period” is simply not in the cards.

Dingding Chen is Assistant Professor of Government and Public Administration at The University of Macau, a Flashpoints contributor. He can be found on Twitter: @ChenDingding.