Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.03.12

How China Could Misinterpret the Ukraine Crisis

JBPress on March 7, 2014

Many in Washington D.C. this week talked about Ukraine as if nothing was happening in the Middle East and East Asia. In the eyes of those who live outside North America and Europe, however, the Crimea could be another place where the Obama administration finds itself in a boiling frog situation in the global security environment.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin 'Bibi' Netanyahu flew into D.C. right after the Ukraine crisis started. The U.S.-Israel summit meeting on March 4, usually a top story of the day, was eclipsed by reports from Kiev, the Crimea and Moscow. Pundits on Russian and East European affairs, who have been relatively quiet in recent years, have suddenly begun to speak out on TV.

Some refer to President Putin as a Hitler-like dictator while others discuss the potential for new Russian imperialism. Although such comparisons may not be appropriate, it is obvious that Ukraine and the Crimea in particular are strategically important for Putin. Nobody asks, however, whether Ukraine is a strategic interest for the United States to protect by any means.

The answer is ambivalent. Obviously, Ukraine is not a first-tier U.S. strategic interest. It is second-tier, at best. At the same time, the United States must prove with action that she is a member of NATO, the alliance which is committed to peace and stability in Europe as a whole. Fair enough!

Here comes the real question. Will the Ukraine crisis change U.S. strategic priorities? Until last year, the Obama administration's basic assumption had been clear. It is that a) Europe is safe, b) wars are ending in the Middle East, and therefore c) we should focus on Asia because the U.S. long-term strategic interests are located there. This may no longer be the case.

The Obama administration may have to review its strategic priorities, now that a) a new Russian empire has reared its head, b) the Russians may double their efforts to undermine U.S. interests elsewhere, such as in the Middle East, and c) China may take advantage of this golden opportunity to imitate Russia in protecting its core strategic interests, either on land or at sea.

These reviews may not change the fundamental U.S. strategic priorities in the long run. However, the Ukraine crisis may have a profound impact on the Asian policies of the United States in the years to come. The most potentially damaging could be wrong messages or signals being sent to China and U.S. allies in Asia.

The Ukraine crisis may put China in a very awkward position for three reasons. First, the crisis might have reminded Beijing that a heavily corrupt authoritarian regime can be easily toppled by a mass popular movement. Secondly, the crisis might have made it hard for China to cooperate with Russia, China's most powerful tactical ally, in a difficult international environment.

Finally and most importantly, the Ukraine crisis must have reminded the world and China's immediate neighbors in particular that China, like Russia, could do whatever she wishes to protect Chinese compatriots as well as Chinese speaking communities in those neighboring countries. Before the Ukraine crisis this was just a possibility, but now it is becoming a reality.

Will China receive a wrong message and try to take a chance on land or at sea, or will she understand the signals correctly and behave as a responsible member of the regional international community? This all depends on how the U.S. responds to the Ukraine crisis. Here are the reasons why.

If the United States, for example, did little and virtually stayed out of the Ukraine crisis, Beijing would consider that Washington would not do anything if a similar crisis took place in the vicinity of the Chinese ground and maritime territories and the airspace there above. This would most likely embolden the People's Liberation Army in justifying the use of force to protect China's core interests.

On the other hand, if the United States made serious efforts to protect and save Ukraine from Russian aggression, Beijing might conclude that the U.S. policy of rebalancing to Asia is nothing more than a slogan and that the American strategic priority had shifted back to the European/NATO theater again. This would also encourage the PLA to continue to pursue China's dominance in Asia.

In a nutshell, the U.S. response to the crisis in Ukraine requires both a prudent and thoughtful sense of balance between the above scenarios. Whatever happens in Ukraine and in the Crimea in particular will send a message to Beijing and the message must be correct and strong. The strategic ramifications of European military developments are no longer confined to Europe alone.