• Fri
  • Aug 29, 2014
  • Updated: 12:15am
Column
PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 April, 2014, 6:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 23 April, 2014, 2:06am

Amid Ukraine fallout, China emerges as the surprise winner

Frank Ching says Beijing, by doing little, scores diplomatically on the Ukraine crisis with both Russia and the US seeking its support

BIO

Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s bureau in Beijing in 1979 when the U.S. and China established diplomatic relations. Before that, he was with The New York Times in New York for 10 years. After Beijing, he wrote the book Ancestors and later joined the Far Eastern Economic Review.
 

In a referendum in which Moscow was visibly pulling the strings, Crimea last month voted to leave Ukraine and become part of Russia, thus returning to a state of affairs that had persisted, on and off, since the 18th century. In 1954, the peninsula was detached from Russia and made part of Ukraine, at a time when both were Soviet republics.

The Crimea referendum was awkward for China since it had long taken the position that part of a country cannot legally vote to secede - unless, of course, the country's constitution permitted it to do so, as was the case with the Soviet Union. But Ukraine's constitution provides no such right to the country's constituent parts.

President Vladimir Putin thanked China for its support and for 'taking into account the full historical and political context'

A decade ago, when Chen Shui-bian was president in Taiwan, there was a movement to hold a referendum to declare the island independent of China. At the time, Beijing took the position that the 23 million people on Taiwan could not decide by themselves and that any referendum would have to include the 1.3 billion people on the mainland.

While the Crimea referendum can be seen as a precedent for secession, it can also be viewed as Crimeans deciding to "rejoin the motherland", from which they had been separated for 60 years.

Both Moscow and Washington had been courting Beijing's support on the Ukrainian issue. But the agreement reached in Geneva last week by Russia, the US, the EU and Ukraine to de-escalate tensions shows that Beijing is not really a key player.

Nonetheless, Russian officials went to great lengths to emphasise that the two countries were in "broad agreement". China, embarrassed, had told American officials behind the scenes that such was not the case.

The differences became evident when the UN Security Council voted last month on an American resolution terming the Crimea referendum invalid. China abstained.

China's abstention evidently meant that it could not endorse either the annexation of Crimea or the condemnation of Russia, its strategic partner.

Despite this, President Vladimir Putin, addressing the Russian parliament two days later, thanked China for its support and for "taking into account the full historical and political context".

The United States, too, strained to show that it and China were "on the same page", with Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, emphasising the "principle that sovereignty and territorial integrity and the independence of nation states is the abiding principle of the international system".

But this is much more a Chinese principle than an American one, as the invasion of Iraq made clear. So, to show that China was on its side, the United States actually moved closer to China.

Putin is scheduled to visit China next month, and the expectation is that an agreement on natural gas will finally be reached, with Russia lowering its price demand in the face of possible European import cutbacks.

All in all, it seems, China is emerging as a winner from the Ukrainian crisis.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator. frank.ching@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1

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This article is now closed to comments

typhoidX
All these comments below about "negative international legal precedents of Crimean independence" for China really misses the point, so let's settle this once & for all:
1. It is the West - NOT Russia - that currently provides financial, propaganda, & moral support to every single separatist movement in China. Yes, Crimea is an inconvenient legal precedent. But is it a more serious threat to Chinese territorial integrity than all the western-sponsored separatist movements? Not by a long shot. The singular focus on "international legal precedents" in the comments section is a promotion of delusional thinking, as it is basically suggesting that China should be more worried about the claws of a cat, rather than the fangs of a viper. Any Chinese who actually buys into this obviously delusional western propaganda is dangerously naive.
2. What caused the chain of events that ultimately led to this inconvenient legal precedent in the Crimea & the escalation of the Ukraine crisis? ANSWER: the coup in Kiev that overthrew a democratically-elected, pro-Russian president. Is the western-backed mob overthrow of a legitimate government also an inconvenient precedent for China? Obviously yes. Who sponsored this coup? The West.
These are the most relevant two pieces of information the Chinese need to know when weighing our interests in the Ukraine crisis.
A Kuro
China and Ukraine have friendly relations. China and Russia have friendly relations. The Ukrainian crisis isn't in China's interests.
scccy
I did not find Frank Ching's argument convincing. If China is a winner, who is the loser? The people of Ukraine? What kind of victory is this? While China may have played her diplomacy in a clever way in this crisis, the price for this is her failure to clearly defend her treasured principle of sovereignty and territorial integrity. A hollow victory for her short-term self interest perhaps, which may come back to haunt her in the future.
XYZ
Mr. Ching is justified in asserting that Chinese diplomacy has played this hand well between the Russian Bear and Uncle Sam, although he strains credulity to suggest that the U.S. has moved closer to the Chinese position. China may live to regret that it has abjured on the question of Russia's violation of its 1991 treaty obligations to respect Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. We'll see.
 
 
 
 
 

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