Like it or not, China is in the middle of an international crisis.
Despite its principle of non-interference, domestic and international interests have put the aptly named Middle Kingdom smack dab between Russia and the United States.
The hot potato is Ukraine, which ousted its president last month only to see Russian president Vladimir Putin deploy troops on March 1 to the Crimean Peninsula, located in the southeastern region of Ukraine.
While China owns 9 percent of Ukrainian farmland, about 11,580 square miles, purchased in fall 2013 in a deal to farm the land for its ballooning population, that stake isn’t much compared to the strategic relationship it holds with Russia where annual bilateral trade is expected to reach US$100 billion by 2015. The Ukrainian farming deal cost China a few seeds, some pigs and a US$3 billion loan which Ukraine must repay.
Russia has actively sought China’s support on the world stage for its de facto assertion of military control of Ukraine’s Crimean region.
In guarded statements, Chinese President Xi Jinping has neither criticized nor supported Moscow’s actions over Ukraine, reported CNN.
At the same time, US President Barack Obama is also attempting to court China’s support for isolating Russia over its military intervention in Ukraine. US goods and services trade with China totaled US$472 billion in 2013.
To that end, Obama spoke with Xi by telephone on March 9. According to reports, the two leaders affirmed their shared interest in reducing tensions and identifying a peaceful resolution to the dispute between Russia and Ukraine, while agreeing to the fundamental importance of focusing on common interests.
Xi and Obama also agreed on the importance of upholding principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, both in the context of Ukraine and also for the broader functioning of the international system, as well as committing to stay in touch as events unfold.
That said, it remains unclear whether China would side with the US and Europe or with Moscow, which has accused the West of sparking the crisis in Ukraine with inappropriate “meddling” in the internal affairs of the former Soviet republic. China is a frequent ally of Russia in the UN Security Council, where both wield veto power.
In wooing China’s support, the US is seeking to capitalize on Beijing’s policy of non-intervention, which Beijing has used as a rationale for limiting its involvement in North Korea and elsewhere around the world, the Associated Press noted.
Obama’s call to Xi was part of a broader effort by the president to rally world leaders around the notion that Russia’s incursion into Crimea violates international law. The Kremlin has so far shown little sign of backing down, and a referendum on whether to join Russia is scheduled in Crimea on Sunday.
The situation for China, to be sure, is delicate. No doubt it would prefer to sit on the sidelines, but throwing its support to either Washington or Moscow carries risk.
“Letting Russia have its way would undermine China’s relationship with Ukraine and cost Beijing significant credibility abroad,” said Elizabeth Economy, director of Asian Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
The Russian seizure of the Crimea, however, provides an interesting template for China as to how eventual reunification with Taiwan might take place in the “worst case” scenario, namely through force, wrote The Diplomat. (Ukraine was part of the former Soviet Union.)
Siding with the US, on the other hand, could jeopardize significant economic ties with Russia, a critical source of oil, natural gas and raw materials.
It will be interesting over the coming days to see how China maintains good relations with Russia without alienating itself completely from the United States and Europe.
On its part, the US has threatened Russia with a range of diplomatic and economic punishments, from visa and asset freezes aimed at members of Putin’s inner circle to suspension of Russia’s membership in the Group of Eight industrialized nations, said Bloomberg. It has also pledged US$1 billion in loan guarantees to Ukraine’s provisional government, while the European Union is mulling over an aid package to Ukraine worth as much as US$15 billion over the next two years.