TIME China

Russian Intervention in Crimea Puts China in Awkward Spot

U.N.
U.N. China Ambassador Liu Jieyi speaks during a U.N. Security Council meeting on the Ukraine, Monday, March 3, 2014 at U.N. headquarters. Bebeto Matthews—AP

Moscow and Beijing have for years defended the sovereignty of nations. Now, with Russian troops deployed in Ukraine, China has had to tow a very tricky line.

Here’s a conundrum for Chinese students of foreign policy. Imagine a country that Beijing supports, with a simpatico leader and a shared communist history. Now imagine that friendly ally deploys soldiers to another nation, contravening one of China’s most cherished international-relations maxims: Don’t meddle in other countries’ internal affairs. Confusing, right? So what should China do about Russian soldiers intervening in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula?

Muddle through, appears to be China’s delicate diplomatic solution. On March 3, China’s permanent representative to the United Nations Liu Jieyi offered up this clarifying gem on the unfolding crisis in Crimea. “There are reasons,” Liu said, “for why the situation in Ukraine is what it is today.” The comment was deemed important enough to be quoted in the China Daily, the nation’s English-language mouthpiece. Reasons, indeed.

A day before, just after Russia voted to allow its armed forces into Ukraine, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang had also shared his views. “There are reasons,” Qin said, “for why the situation in Ukraine is what it is today.” Sound familiar?

It got worse. The same day as when the Chinese UN representative was speaking of situations in Ukraine, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman added yet another intriguing thought into the mix. “There are reasons for today’s situation in Ukraine,” he said, moving the position of the word “today” slightly in his incisive analysis. A China Daily story covering Qin’s latest statement noted that “China’s stance on the current situation in Ukraine is objective, just, fair and peaceful.”

Asked to further comment on Russia’s military intervention, Qin added that:

“China upholds its own diplomatic principles and the basic codes for international relations, which have also been implied on the Ukraine issue. Meanwhile, we have also taken the historical and contemporary factors of the Ukraine issue into consideration.”

What exactly has been implied? What are the factors that need to be taken into consideration? Qin did not elaborate.

Of course, this expert ambiguity didn’t stop the Russian Foreign Ministry from stating that China and Russia had “broadly coinciding points of view” over Moscow’s actions in Ukraine. Certainly, articles in China’s state media, a good gauge of official opinion, seemed to champion the Russian perspective. On March 4, after Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke near Moscow, Xinhua, the Chinese state news agency, ran an article entitled “Putin calls Ukraine events coup, defends Russian position.” The Chinese story did little to question Putin’s stance.

China and Russia haven’t always been chums. There was that nasty Sino-Soviet split, which stole decades from a budding socialist brotherhood. (The split was fully mended in 1989 when Mikhail Gorbachev visited Beijing, shortly before the Tiananmen massacre.) But recent years have seen a thaw in relations, and the two nations have acted in lockstep over major foreign-policy stumbling blocks like Syria. The first overseas trip China’s President Xi Jinping’s took as national leader was to Russia. As a member of the UN Security Council, China could help shield Russia from international opprobrium.

Meanwhile, the Global Times, a patriotic Beijing-based daily, used the opportunity of the unfolding crisis in Ukraine to criticize a common punching bag: the U.S., which it described in a March 3 editorial as having turned into a “doormat.” Putin, by contrast, was praised for bringing “back the past glory of Russia.” That’s just what Xi, China’s proud leader, wants to do at home.

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