Since the Ukraine crisis, Chinese President Xi Jinping has made two important phone calls, one to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and one to U.S. President Barack Obama. Xi told Merkel that the Ukraine situation is “highly sensitive” and needs to be weighed carefully. In his phone conversation with Obama, Xi said, “The situation in Ukraine is extremely complex, and what is most urgent is for all sides to remain calm and exercise restraint to avoid an escalation in tensions. Political and diplomatic routes must be used to resolve the crisis.”
Xi’s remarks are disappointing. The new leaders in Kiev do not feel China’s support. Washington, London and Brussels may believe Beijing is simply playing the game of no moral commitment and it has no intention whatsoever to complain about a Moscow power play.
If I were serving on China’s newly created National Security Council and asked to make a policy recommendation, I would argue that China should support the United States in condemning Moscow’s attempt to annex Crimea and eastern parts of Ukraine and should consider participating in the international sanctions against Moscow if it moves on Crimea.
First, Russians’ claim that where Russian is spoken it has the right to annex only has negative implications for China’s Tibet and Xinjiang where there are strong elements for secession.
Second, when many in Taiwan talk about using referendum to determine its eventual destiny of statehood, Beijing always adheres to the principle that a real referendum on Taiwan’s sovereignty must include people on the mainland. Will Beijing’s silence on this issue be used later by people in Taiwan and even in Hong Kong?
Third, Russia is the country that used force and intimidation in the Czar years to engage in land grabbing from China. To remain silent on the Russian aggression now is tantamount to conceding to past territorial aggressions against China and makes China’s current staunch position on the Diaoyu Islands look flimsy.
Fourth, China has floated loans to Kiev and signed many economic and agricultural deals. China has also bought and may need to buy more weapons from Ukraine. Will China’s acquiescence in front of a Russian invasion lead to any economic losses?
Fifth, the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence is China’s haloed foreign policy. Not to apply it to the Ukraine situation may lead to accusation of practicing double standards.
Sixth, will Moscow really offer support to China’s territorial claims on Japan and Southeast Asian countries if China supports Moscow on the Ukraine issue? The Kremlin is stingy and President Putin has not offered any concrete support on these issues to Zhongnanhai although President Xi made two trips to Russia since coming to power in 2013.
Lastly, the most important bilateral relationship for China is its relationship with the United States. To align itself with Washington will be a giant step toward building a new model of major country relations. Will the Chinese economy tank if Russia reduces energy supply to China? Will the U.S. not come to China’s support if it indeed happens?
In the real word of geopolitics even if Beijing chooses not to openly support Washington and other Western countries and not to openly condemn Moscow’s rash action, it has to make it clear to the world that China will respect international laws and observe equal treatment of nations in the world. Otherwise, it will be rendered powerless in confronting its own ethnic issues down the road.
If China can survive this Ukraine moment with adherence to international laws and bearing moral standards without sacrificing much of its own interests, it will be the moment that China can say to the world ‘We are a big power and we represent truth and justice.’
Assuming Moscow gets what it desires in the coming weeks, what will President Xi say at the EU Headquarters during his upcoming visit?