New Eurasian entente forms over Ukraine, isolating US

Lanxin Xiang says a new Eurasian entente seems to be emerging around the crisis in Ukraine, similar to the one that isolated the US over the Iraq invasion, and in which China has a huge stake

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 11 March, 2014, 6:33pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 March, 2014, 4:03am

It seems ironic that China, the former lead opponent of the Soviet Brezhnev Doctrine, should have supported the Russian position in Ukraine. The former Soviet Union utilised the doctrine to launch military action in other socialist "brother" countries, such as Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the West did nothing. Mao Zedong was frustrated and began to call the Soviet policy "social imperialism".

Today, the world has changed fundamentally, and Beijing's rationale for supporting the Russian position is well calculated. The foreign ministry said there were "reasons" for the current situation in Ukraine. President Xi Jinping, in a phone conversation with President Vladimir Putin, said the turn of events "may have been accidental, but inevitable". Such open diplomatic support for Russia has profound significance beyond the current honeymoon between the two nations.

First, China and Russia share the view that so-called "democratic promotion" by the West has not only been failing - witness the Arab spring - but has also become a major source of political and social instability in other countries.

Moreover, the West always seems willing to adopt double standards as to the legitimacy of a regime. At one point, the Egyptian military coup against an elected government was even hailed as a victory for "democracy".

The West, especially the United States, is losing credibility around the world. The current regime in Ukraine is not an elected government and consists of ultra-nationalists, anarchists and even some neo- fascists. The West acquiesced to the overthrow of an elected government by ultra-nationalist paramilitary forces.

More alarmingly, the first acts of the interim government included abolishing the official status of Russian and other minority languages as well as political parties that supported ousted president Viktor Yanukovych.

Second, the West, the US in particular, seems to have lost touch with reality. The real problem with Ukraine is not Crimea but internal divisions. The Anglo-American mistake long ago to promise Nato entry for Ukraine and, even more ridiculously, Georgia, has proven to be wrong.

Not too long ago, the US talked incessantly of the fashionable new concept of the "right to protect" - actually another version of the Brezhnev Doctrine of limited sovereignty. Now with Ukraine, where civil war is a real possibility, it is suddenly championing the Westphalian argument of absolute sovereignty again. This approach is too obvious to become persuasive. The Chinese have good reason to stand by the Russians to expose and resist this blatant hypocrisy.

Third, China may end up being the only beneficiary from the Ukraine crisis. For several years, the US has staged a highly publicised, trouble-making - in the Chinese view - comeback to Asia after colossal failures in the Middle East. Now American attention is again being diverted elsewhere. Moreover, the crisis in Ukraine will help strengthen economic ties between Beijing and Moscow.

The most important development coming out of the Ukraine crisis could be the revival of the anti-American Eurasian entente that emerged during the debate over the invasion of Iraq in 2003. This entente, led by then French president Jacques Chirac and German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, succeeded in uniting major powers on the Eurasian continent in a noble cause of preventing a strategic mistake by the US. Beijing and Moscow were firmly behind the Franco-German anti-war position. Although the entente did not stop the invasion of Iraq, America's costly mistake has become clear.

Perhaps few commentators believe this moment might come again. But we are witnessing a most promising new diplomacy, again led by the Franco-German engine, driven more by the Germans this time. The starting premise of this "new Ostpolitik" is to bridge the long-standing difference between Russia and the West through an honest effort of correcting past mistakes, especially the irresponsible idea of Nato membership for Ukraine.

The only solution to the crisis, as Angela Merkel seems to believe, is to abandon this ambition and the provocative policy of forcing the Ukrainian people to make a clear choice between the West and Russia - a choice they could never make without the prospect of widespread civil strife. The neutralisation - or, to put it bluntly, the "Finlandisation" - of Ukraine is the way.

After decades of building a good relationship with Russia, Germany is in a unique position to work with Putin on issues of common concern. Merkel's moment has finally arrived and the German leadership will not abandon efforts to bring about Russian co-operation with the European Union. The Ukraine crisis may be a hiccup for Merkel's new Ostpolitik, but no one can stop her playing a leading role in maintaining peace on the European continent.

Besides, she may be the only Western leader who can look Putin in the eye and tell him the truth, good or bad, and get a deal that will require both sides, the West and Russia, to back down. The key issue here is how to jointly restrain the Ukrainian ultra-nationalist politicians who often disguise themselves as "pro-Western" leaders.

Despite diplomatic tensions, there is light at the end of the tunnel. "De-escalation" has become a catchword, which should mean mutual restraint. If Merkel can achieve peace, with Putin's co-operation, both deserve the Nobel Peace Prize.

China has a huge stake in a peaceful solution to the crisis, not only for Sino-Russian solidarity, but also for the long-term prospects of the new Eurasian entente. The year 2003 was a crucial moment for Chinese diplomacy and a major turning point for Chinese attitudes towards the EU. The anti-war entente convinced Beijing that the West is managed by two players, not one, whose motives and styles barely converge. On one side is the rules-bound and peace-loving EU; on the other, the highly militarised, rule-breaking and adventure-seeking US.

It is no surprise that 2004 was designated the "Year of the EU" in China.

Since then, the union has become China's biggest economic partner and an extraordinary special relationship - economic as well as strategic - has been established between Beijing and Berlin. President Xi will visit Germany and France in a few weeks, and it seems certain that China will support any approach by Merkel that leads to a genuine de-escalation of the crisis in Europe.

Lanxin Xiang, a professor at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva, is currently in Washington as a senior fellow of the Transatlantic Academy at the German Marshall Fund