Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.03.26

China in Quandary over Crisis in Crimea

JBPress on March 24, 2014

The post-Cold War era in Europe is gone and China seems to be trapped in a quandary. On March 15, the United Nations Security Council voted on a Ukraine resolution condemning the referendum in Crimea. Unlike in previous cases, Beijing didn't support Russia and abstained. This reveals that China's profound and never-ending dilemma continues in an era of wild neo-nationalism.

Watching the recent geopolitical transformation in Europe from Tokyo, Beijing's indecisive attitude has been a phenomenon, with her official media reporting that "China's abstention reflects the consistent principle of the Chinese government to respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries." If so, Beijing seems to have reason enough to support the U.S.-led resolution.

However, China did not support the resolution. On the contrary, China asserts that what happened in Kiev "is an anti-Russia color revolution supported by the West" and that the "interference of the West in the Ukraine crisis has messed up the region and Russia was bound to respond." If this is the case, China had good reasons to join Russia in vetoing the resolution. Again, China did not do this, either.

China criticizes the "double standard of the West." Beijing denounces the "hypocrisy" of the western nations, asserting that, while having advocated in Kosovo that "human rights" and "the right to self-determination," in particular, "take precedence over sovereignty," now the West claim that the "sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine are paramount."

Wait a minute. Didn't China support the Vietnamese national right to self-determination by helping the Vietcong through the Ho Chi Minh trail during the Vietnam War? Doesn't China now deny Uyghurs, Tibetans or other minorities the same right to self-determination? Beijing has no ground for criticizing the G7 member states over the "double standard."

China sees a "final battlefield in the cold war" in Ukraine. Beijing believes the West took advantage of a power vacuum that "provided the big powers with an incentive to meddle in Ukraine's affairs" and to "promote regime change" there, concluding that the western countries' behavior is "only determined by their own self-interest."

Again, this puzzles many in Tokyo. Isn't it Russia that took advantage of the power vacuum in Crimea to annex the peninsula? Didn't China take advantage of the power vacuums in 1950s Uyghur and Tibet to take over those regions? Beijing's argument against the West seems to have no credibility or rationale.

What is really at stake here is whether or not Russia has the right to change the status-quo by force. The relative stability in post-Cold War Europe was based on the hope that Russia would be a liberal democracy, respecting the sovereignty and independence of its European neighbors without threatening or using force against them, as Russia promised Ukraine in 1994.

China seems to ignore the fact that the latest Russian move was a clear violation to this basic framework in Europe. Rather, they consider the crisis in Ukraine a potential "second cold war." The Chinese leadership seems to fear that Beijing could be the next target and victim of the western "double standard" offensives against hostile non-western major powers.

This is the very reason why China sounds so ambivalent. If China voted for the U.S.-led resolution criticizing Russia, Beijing must oppose the Russian annexation of Crimea as an act of aggression to change the status-quo by force. This will make China more vulnerable to criticism if and when Beijing tries to change the maritime status-quo by force in the East and South China Seas.

If China vetoed the resolution, on the other hand, Beijing would publicly honor the right alleged by Russia to self-determination for the Russian speaking "minorities" in the region. This would automatically pave the way for China's domestic minorities in Uyghur, Tibet and elsewhere to legitimatize their national cause in defying Beijing's harsh policies on minority groups.

For Beijing, the vote in the U.N. Security Council was a real test of China's will to become a responsible member of the international community. Unfortunately, however, China is willing neither to denounce a change in status-quo by force nor to support minorities' right to self-determination. Beijing seems to have failed in this important test.