BEIJING — China wants to think of itself as a player on the world stage, but in the Ukraine standoff that pits Russia against the West, it has stayed mostly on the sidelines, issuing oblique statements that have left many outside observers shaking their heads.
Asked earlier this week if Russia had violated international law with its incursion into Crimea, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Qin Gang, offered this response to a roomful of befuddled reporters:
“I want to point out that we are aware of the historical facts and realistic complexity of the Ukrainian issue. There are reasons for why the situation in Ukraine is what it is today.”
China’s position was similarly obscure in the White House’s report on the meeting Thursday between national security adviser Susan Rice and her Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi. The two sides “share an interest in supporting efforts to identify a peaceful resolution to the ongoing dispute,” the White House statement said. China’s state media offered a different slant, without illumination. “The legitimate rights and interests of all ethnic groups in Ukraine should be accommodated,” Yang reportedly told Rice.
Nearly all analysts agree that China is uniquely positioned to help resolve the crisis. China has close relations with Russia and important trade interests in Ukraine that could be threatened if the new government were to prove unfriendly. It has a longstanding position of opposing foreign interventions in the affairs of other countries. It also has a seat on the United Nations Security Council and so could pressure Russia to withdraw troops before there was a possible vote on international sanctions.
Yet China is clearly leery of the optics. It doesn’t want to be seen as siding with the West. And it doesn’t want to alienate Russia, a country it depends upon for oil and strategic cooperation.
“China faces a dilemma, which is precisely the reason they are unlikely to help resolve the crisis or say anything at all about it,” said Lowell Dittmer, a political science professor at the University of California Berkeley who specializes in China and Asia.
China and Russia have a strategic partnership and a friendship treaty, Dittmer said, but they also have an explicit understanding that they won’t meddle in each other’s dealings with third parties, unless national interests are involved.
For that reason, Dittmer said, Russia has declared itself neutral on China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. Previously, China disagreed with Russia’s decisions to go to war against Georgia in 2008 “but tried to publicize it as little as possible,” he said.
There are signs that China is similarly displeased with this latest Russian incursion but doesn’t want to make its concerns public. While Moscow has said that China and Russia have “broadly coinciding points of view” on the Ukrainian situation, Beijing hasn’t made any statements that could be viewed as supportive of Russia’s use of force outside its borders.
On Tuesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping reportedly talked by phone with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. According to Chinese state media, Xi told Putin that “China believes that Russia can coordinate with other parties to push for the political settlement of the issue so as to safeguard regional and world peace and stability.” Xi reportedly added that “China supports the proposals and mediation efforts of the international community that are conducive to reduction of tension.”
China’s statements to date are far more guarded than those that Beijing issued when the United States last year was contemplating military action against Syria for alleged use of chemical weapons. And it stands in contrast to the recent condemnations of Russia issued by some other Asian nations.
On Tuesday, Indonesia’s foreign minister urged the U.N. Security Council to intervene against Russia’s incursion.
“It threatens not only the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, but also risks raising tensions in relations between the affected countries,” said Foreign Minster Marty Natalegawa.
From an economic standpoint, China has good reasons to maintain friendly relations with both Russia and the new Ukrainian government. China last year became the world’s largest importer of crude oil, and Russia is its fourth largest source. China also has been negotiating to lease vast tracts of farmland in east Ukraine, a deal that Moscow reportedly frowns on, given that Ukraine is Russia’s breadbasket.
In a speech Wednesday at the National People’s Congress, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang pledged that China will actively participate in international, multilateral affairs and “will play a constructive role in resolving global and hotspot issues.”
But there are countervailing forces pressuring China’s leaders to play a role that the United States and the European Union would find less than constructive. The same day Li spoke to China’s version of parliament, a state newspaper, Global Times, ran an editorial urging Chinese leaders to side with Russia in Crimea.
“We prefer to agree with voices supporting Russia,” the newspaper said. “Russia has been resisting the eastward trend of Western forces in Ukraine, which is important not only to its own fate but also to China’s strategic interests.”