China and the Asia-Pacific can draw a few conclusions from the current situation in the Crimea. Where does this leave the region? How has China responded, and what are the implications?
Strangely, the region is relatively quiet. Beijing’s neighbours are feeling somewhat vindicated in their individual decisions to hedge against China’s ‘peaceful rise’, but they are also hesitant to see the political and social costs of that hedging increase. Funneling state funds into the armed forces ultimately means some other part of the national budget is left comparably behind. The Philippines, for example, is torn between rebuilding its infrastructure after a devastating hurricane and rearming its antiquated military. Japan and South Korea, while dominant regional powers, are both struggling with systemic economic issues.
Elsewhere, conflict with China is a distant second to the pressing immediacy of problems at home. Singapore has a brewing cultural-ethnic problem it must address. Malaysia’s economic success continues to be marred by cultural and racial divisions. Thailand and Myanmar, to say nothing of Indonesia, remain deeply-divided societies.
China, meanwhile, has been uncharacteristically neutral. By abstaining in the UN resolution to deem the Crimean referendum illegal, Beijing has managed to stick to its core “non-interference” foreign policy principle while simultaneously not explicitly condemning Moscow’s actions. Contrary to its usual siding with Moscow in the UN, China gave neither support to Russia or disapproval to the West. It seems that Beijing is content as a third-party observer, warning against escalation from either side and offering a generic plan for negotiations.
But there is a deeper rationale at work in China’s tacit neutrality. Beijing is, in fact, caught between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, it cannot join the United States and the European Union in condemning Russian interference in domestic Ukrainian affairs because to do so would be to legitimize the Western brand of interventionism. Indeed, Chinese state media has already underscored the historical culpability of the West in creating the present-day situation. The CCP also has no wish to set a precedent that may allow for future meddling in Chinese domestic affairs.
On the other hand, Beijing is loath to support the idea of territorial secession based on ethnic, cultural, or linguistic differences. Beyond “non-interference”, one only has to look at the friction China has with Taiwan and Tibet, as well as the unrest in the Chinese province of Xinjiang to understand the dangerous precedent it would be setting. Such recognition would instantly legitimize Tibetan and Uighur causes for separation and allow Taiwan a viable alternative to reunification, all scenarios counter to Beijing’s domestic stability objectives.
Benefits of Neutrality
Maintaining neutrality, however, also certainly has its advantages. Waiting for the dust to settle allows Beijing to benefit (albeit in different ways) from either outcome. It has seen firsthand how the United States and its European allies will (or will not) respond to such a crisis. Given the relatively low short-term costs for Russia so far, some in China may see this as an opportunity to act on China’s own territorial claims.
Should serious Western sanctions actually occur against Russia, however, China still stands to gain. If Moscow is economically isolated, China would be a natural alternate market for Russian oil and gas given its geographical proximity and enormous thirst for secure energy supplies. Overland delivery would mean a far lesser percentage of China’s energy needs had to go through the Strait of Malacca from the Middle East, limiting insecurities against India and Southeast Asia. Shorter and more secure supply routes to China’s western provinces, particularly Xinjiang, would also support Beijing’s desire to rapidly develop the region and thus stave off growing ethnic discontent.
Beyond oil and gas, China has also been a historical market for Russian arms. Renewed sale of Russian weapons could allow the PLA access to the high technology it needs to round out its military modernization. Given the Chinese propensity to reverse-engineer foreign technology for serial indigenous production, even a few jet fighter turbofan engines or some quiet submarine technology, for example, would accelerate Chinese military development and capabilities.
Finally, China may see an opportunity to increase its influence in Central Asia at Russian expense. As with Russian energy, Beijing is interested in securing short overland energy lines from Central Asian suppliers. Chinese investment in this region has already grown steadily in the past decade, in part because of Chinese domestic security interests in Central Asia – an unstable or insurgent-hosting Central Asian nation (to say nothing of Afghanistan) would have spill-over effects into China’s western provinces, particularly restive Xinjiang.
Limits of Neutrality
These potential benefits are not guaranteed. Beijing is sorely mistaken if it believes China will be Moscow’s only recourse if sanctions are imposed. Russia may indeed seek new energy markets and other partnerships with China, but it is equally possible that Moscow instead sees Beijing as an ascendant rival in exactly the same areas – energy, arms, and geopolitical influence. It has already approached India, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam (all Chinese neighbours) with oil and gas offers. Russia is also reluctant to sell China its top-end military equipment, lest it allows China to become a rival advanced arms supplier. Lastly, if the Crimean situation was Putin’s move to enhance Russia’s western sphere of influence, the Kremlin will not take lightly to Chinese encroachment in Central Asia, Russia’s southeastern sphere of influence.
China is also sorely mistaken if it believes it will have the same international leeway implicitly granted Russia. Whereas Moscow is currently seen as a has-been power desperate to re-ignite its Cold War glory, China is undoubtedly perceived as a rising great power and inherently viewed with more suspicion. Belligerent posturing is therefore more likely to be met with a far fiercer response. China’s ADIZ in the East China Sea, for example, was almost immediately challenged by American and Japanese aircraft and South Korean warships. Choosing to pursue an overtly aggressive foreign policy like Russia did with Ukraine would instantly legitimize the region’s hereunto unsubstantiated fears of Chinese hegemony and destroy China’s self-professed desire for ‘peaceful co-existence’. Given that the present world order has served it well, Beijing may not be desperate enough to deviate from its current passive-aggressive ‘have cake and eat it too’ approach – yet.
Regardless of a paradigm shift or crippling sanctions, the Crimean situation has given the Asia-Pacific a run-down of at least one hypothetical conflict scenario in the region. It has probably brought into question assumptions individual nations made in their foreign policy and military calculus, and likely forced a re-evaluation of strategic positions. Whether or not any outlooks have changed will surface in the months to come. There are some interesting times ahead.
Ernest Chong graduated from the School of Public Policy and Governance in 2011. He is currently an analyst with the Government of Canada. The views expressed in this post are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Government of Canada.