Russia and Ukraine – Does China support Moscow?

by Chris Zappone

An earlier post pointed to the conclusion by FP writer Colum Lynch that suggested China was not supporting its strategic ally Russia in its actions in eastern Ukraine.

This run-down of countries’ views by Bloomberg takes the opposite view:

While Chinese officials have repeatedly urged a diplomatic solution to the crisis in Ukraine, they underscore their nation’s ties to Russia and oppose sanctions against it.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi said March 8 that China’s relationship with Russia is “in its best period in history, characterized by a high level of mutual trust” and firm support for each other. Wang called for calm and restraint in the Ukraine crisis.

Some have speculated elsewhere that China could gain by backing Russia.

Andong Peng from Tsinghua University says China could benefit if the US becomes bogged down in the Ukraine issue in two ways.

Strategically, Beijing may calculate that letting the Americans become “involved” in the Ukraine means a further weakening of Obama’s already rudderless efforts in the Pacific.

The idea seems akin to the notion Beijing and Moscow can together conspire to bankrupt the US by spreading the security threats far and wide and causing the US to divert far too many resources to the military is not new. But the underlying situation is not so simple. The US is cutting its defense budget. With the blessing of its own people, the US is shifting away from a war footing. This is important.

Sure, the military will continue to cost a lot and the Asia Pivot needs hard-power backing. But this White House seems to sense that the surest way to long-term security at this point is through a strong economy.

Peng goes on about the effect of a Ukrainian quagmire on the US, writing:

If this involvement went on to constitute a “defeat” (any scenario where Russia ends up with a more secure border than before) it would help weaken the strongest weapon in the U.S. arsenal: the soft power effect.

Or it could just as easily push countries that may feel lukewarm about the US into its arms, a point French historian Emmanuel Todd says of the current period:

Once the U.S. acknowledges that it is not the ruler of the world, once it acts reasonably, then many, many nations will realize that they need the U.S. This is the paradox.

You may be forgiven for thinking there is one answer to the question of whether China supports Russia on Ukraine. But don’t be so sure. China cultivates ambiguity around a lot of issues, either by accident or on purpose. By accident because there are deep divisions within the country’s leadership and fiefdoms and on purpose becuase their leaders understand the value of keeping adversaries guessing. 

While the civilian government, mindful of economic ties, may not support Russia’s move. Other elements in China, perhaps more military and strategic, could very well support them.

My hunch is that China will continue to send mixed signals about Ukraine. Any gain China makes by giving the impression of implied support for Russia also has to be balanced against the risk Beijing creates by encouraging Russia in these same matters – especially as the two countries have vastly different interests in Central Asia.

And don’t necessarily look for a resolution to these seeming contradictions from China either. The ambiguity reflects both China’s interests and its internal political culture. And those factors will influence global geopolitics for some time.