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Can Beijing Remain Neutral in the Ukrainian Conflict?

Can Beijing Remain Neutral in the Ukrainian Conflict?


As the Ukrainian crisis escalates, President Barack Obama has been busy making the diplomatic rounds trying to build support against the unilateral attempts by Crimea to break away from the new government in Ukraine. President Obama said the United States is examining a series of economic and diplomatic steps to “isolate Russia,” and he called on Congress to work on an economic assistance package for Ukraine. One such important additional effort involves the Chinese, who sit on the U.N. Security Council, and with their veto power, could sway, along with Russia, any multilateral efforts at building consensus on potential sanctions.

Following the tragic events of March 1, the Chinese are busy battling their own ethnic insurgency, when a group of knife-wielding assailants indiscriminately attacked civilians at a railway station in Kunming, provincial capital of Yunnan, causing 29 deaths and injuring another 143. The juxtaposition of Kunming and Kiev should call into question Beijing’s inconsistent stance on non-intervention in the affairs of other countries – yet so far the official comments from China authorities appear neutral. Ken Lieberthal, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, believes China is “sitting on the fence post,” and last Sunday, President Obama spoke to Chinese President Xi Jinping in a bid to get Beijing off the fence. Obama’s bid comes immediately prior to Crimea’s referendum this weekend on joining Russia, the result of which the Ukrainian government and the U.S. have vowed not to recognize. How the Chinese react to pressure from the Obama administration, in its attempts to court China’s support for isolating Russia over its military intervention in Ukraine will be telling.

In wooing Beijing’s support, Obama appealed to China’s well-known opposition to outside intervention in other nations’ domestic affairs. Beijing’s policy of non-intervention has often been used to sustain its rationale for limiting its involvement in North Korea and elsewhere around the world. At the same time, China has often intervened and shown support for Russia in its sphere of influence, such as in the Syrian crisis, with the expectation Russia would support China’s interests in Asia, such as North Korea.

In his conversation with Xi, Obama “noted his overriding objective of restoring Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and ensuring the Ukrainian people are able to determine their own future without foreign interference” — indeed something which China’s leaders have long been harping on regarding Taiwan and other disputes over territorial waters with its neighbors.

Despite Xi agreeing with Obama on the general principles of territorial integrity, it remains unclear whether China will side with the U.S. and Europe or with Moscow. The Russians have accused the West of sparking the crisis in Ukraine with inappropriate “meddling” — much as the Chinese have also accused foreign influences with influencing the uprisings in its Xinjiang province.

The closing statement of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) on Tuesday stated that the CPPCC must fully play its part in promoting social harmony and protecting national security and ethnic unity, calling for improvements in the ethnic regional autonomous system. Beijing needs to display the empathy it purports and view the current situation in Crimea through the eyes of its own Uighur ethnic minority in Xinjiang. If Beijing allows the Crimea to break away from Ukraine, due to a policy of non-interference, how can it logically argue against the same thing happening on its own territory?

The U.N. Security Council will hold talks again in New York, marking the body’s fourth consultations on the subject since Friday. China needs to step up as a responsible member of the global community and condemn the undemocratic breakaway of Crimea, lest it expect the same non-intervention and fence-sitting from the foreign community should the Uighurs gain momentum in their bid to break away.



Gary Sands

Gary Sands is a Senior Analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy, and a Director at Highway West Capital Advisors, a venture capital, project finance and political risk advisory. He has contributed a number of op-eds for Forbes, U.S. News and World Report, Newsweek, Washington Times, The Diplomat, The National Interest, International Policy Digest, Asia Times, EurasiaNet, Eurasia Review, Indo-Pacific Review, the South China Morning Post, and the Global Times. He was previously employed in lending and advisory roles at Shell Capital, ABB Structured Finance, and the U.S. Overseas Private Investment Corporation. He earned his Masters of Business Administration in International Business from the George Washington University in Washington, D.C. and a Bachelor of Science in Finance at the University of Connecticut in Storrs, Connecticut. He spent six years in Shanghai from 2006-2012, four years in Rio de Janeiro, and is currently based in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Twitter@ForeignDevil666