China’s ‘silent diplomacy’ on Ukraine

  
China-EU flag montage. [Shutterstock]

China does not approve EU and US sanctions on Moscow, urging all parties to refrain from escalating tensions and isolating Russia. But Beijing is not entirely happy with the Kremlin's foreign policy either.

Ahead of a historic visit next week of Chinese president Xi Jinping to Brussels – the first ever visit of the Chinese head of state to the European institutions – the Chinese ambassador to the EU reiterated Beijing’s position on the Ukrainian crisis, an issue that may come up during the meeting “if it is raised”, the ambassador said.

“We follow what you are doing, but we believe that the proper way of handling this very complicated issue is through political dialogue and consultation, and we hope that all the parties will do so, and will not further escalate the tensions, but try to de-escalate, and we don’t believe that sanctions will do the work,” Ambassador Yang Yanyi told the press on Wednesday (26 March).

Whether the issue comes up will largely depend on Europe. “Europeans are very resolute on Ukraine and it is likely that they will push the issue on the agenda,” said Anastas Vangeli, a scholar who specialises on EU-China relations. But as Mr. Xi remained reserved on the matter at his meeting with President Obama, he might be just as reluctant to go “deeply” into details, he told EurActiv.

'Forced' in Russia’s camp

Although China disagrees with the sanctions logic, it will “not, for the time being resist it,” said Jonathan Holslag an expert on EU-Asia relations at Brussels Free University (ULB).

“China’s message next week will be a message for restraint and dialogue," Holslag said. "The main argument for China is for the world community to avoid driving Russia further into isolation because that will make it [Russia] more reckless.”

And recklessness is what is driving Beijing away from Moscow after the annexation of Crimea: “Off the record, Chinese officials are immensely critical of what Russia has done,” the analyst stated, arguing that “informally, the Chinese are having very straightforward discussions with their friends in Moscow.”

For Beijing, Russian actions in the South of Crimea have put the country in a “difficult” position vis-à-vis the West “that will exact a diplomatic price” according to Holslag.

However, the West should not expect China to join its camp for several reasons, one of them being that “the distrust towards the United States remains too big” and “the long term intentions of the US in the Pacific, and globally, are still much more important than the current misgivings of Moscow”.

“As long as you have that pressing security dilemma between the US and China in the Pacific, China will stick to its partnership with Russia, because it’s basically the only strategic partner that it still can rely on when it comes to clenching of fists against a common challenger,” Holslag explains, citing other examples, such as the Syrian crisis, to illustrate Beijing’s restrained diplomatic attitude on matters opposing the West, and especially the US, to the rest of the world.

Warnings to Russia

China's “silent diplomacy” on the Ukrainian crisis does not mean, however, that Beijing does not fear Russia’s possible future initiatives in its immediate neighborhood, where sizeable Russian minorities reside.

“Experts related to the Chinese government have written and said in the last weeks that it will not be pleased if Russia would broaden its offensive in Eastern Europe to Transnistria (…) because China also shares a rather complex environment with Russia which is central Asia, where Russia could also push to increase its influence via the Customs Union,” Holslag argues.

China fears any kind of destabilisation and threats to the security in its immediate vicinity, as that “would elicit more intervention from the US”, something China seeks to avoid. However, Beijing’s cautious attitude does not mean it approves of Moscow’s actions, and it remains wary of the impact the annexation of the Ukrainian Southern region could have globally.

This might explain why an official recognition of Crimea's annexation seems out of the question.

“So far, without exception, China has opposed all foreign interventions and violations of sovereignty, the breaches of the international law, as well as secessionism. In this sense, it is very unlikely that China will ever recognise Crimea’s independence,” Vangeli argues.

But could Beijing's position evolve?

“If they recognise it, that will be an important signal. It would also be watched very closely by its neighbours. If there’s something the neighbours worry about, it is Chinese expansionism,” Holslag notes.

The option remains of course sheer speculation for now. But, as Vangeli remarks, "exceptions do exist", as was the case with China's recognition of South Sudan, in 2011.

Timeline: 
  • 31 March - 1 April: Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit the EU headquarters
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