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  • Aug 30, 2014
  • Updated: 8:12am
CommentInsight & Opinion

Referendum in Crimea brings anxiety to China

Paul Letters says Crimea's planned referendum has put Beijing in a quandary, whatever the result, and raised fears about the idea spreading

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 March, 2014, 12:57pm
UPDATED : Friday, 14 March, 2014, 2:39am

Russia has taken us back to imperialism by occupying a neighbouring country, but is Moscow's support for a vote for Crimeans to determine their own destiny such a terrible idea? It is if you're the government of China.

Some misplaced arguments contend that a referendum is simply a totalitarian tool. No leader presses upon Western nerves more adeptly than President Vladimir Putin. The build-up to Sunday's planned referendum includes worrying reports of Crimean Tatars, who are generally Islamic and fearful of Russia's intentions, having their doors marked with a cross and their passports confiscated - meaning they will not be able to vote.

Mainstream Western media organisations have likened the situation to Hitler's use of referendums. The four major plebiscites he held were used to ratify new powers or territory grabbed by the Führer. However, others suggest it's usually Western-style democracies that favour the use of such a democratic weapon. Referendums are used widely in Europe; Switzerland, for example, holds several a year. So, in seeking to draw at least parts of Ukraine away from Europe, is Russia being European in its methods?

Scotland has a referendum for possible independence coming up - but another European democracy isn't happy about this. Spain is not only against a vote to decide the future of the Catalan and Basque regions, its government has indicated it may veto Scotland's application for entry into the EU for fear of encouraging its own separatist movements.

Referendums are not un-Asian. They have been used many times in the Philippines, South Korea and Cambodia over the years. In 2004, Taiwan held a referendum where more than 90 per cent of voters displayed mistrust of mainland China - but fewer than the required 50 per cent of the electorate turned up, so the vote was declared invalid.

Crimea's referendum, asking whether people prefer greater autonomy within Ukraine or union with Russia, will be held only in the province of Crimea - as opposed to the whole of Ukraine, as the national constitution demands. Even an outcome that isn't rigged may well favour union with Russia.

But it's the principle rather than the result that matters to China, which seeks friendly relations with both nations. China's relationship with Ukraine includes the lease of 5 per cent of the latter's territory - a sizeable area - for agriculture. Regarding arms exports, China is Ukraine's biggest customer, but Russia is one of China's biggest suppliers, not to mention its key ally in the UN Security Council.

Since the Ukrainian crisis began, China's officials have been slipping on the ice. Foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang obliquely displayed China's discomfort in stating that "China has always upheld the principles of diplomacy and the fundamental norms of international relations". You could feel the Politburo squirming in their seats.

Russia's occupation of a foreign nation presented China with a diplomatic quandary, but a vote which allows self-determination will bring Beijing greater discomfort. Were such an idea to spread, China would have a lot to lose - Xinjiang , Tibet , Inner Mongolia - and nothing to gain: Taiwanese mistrust is not about to disappear.

Paul Letters is a political commentator and writer. See paulletters.com

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clc2
"Even an outcome that isn't rigged may well favour union with Russia."
Would you believe that there is no way to vote for the existing union with the Ukraine? You can vote: "Yes, make us Russian now!" and "Yes, turn the clock back to Crimea's legal status in 1991, when everyone had a Russian Passport and a Ukrainian Passport."
There is no "Nyet!"
carbonneutralnigel
defiantely a good idea.......a referendum for HK as part of China, or not!
Greenwash
Whereas the United Kingdom (re Scotland) and Canada (re Quebec) have not raised objections to these countries/provinces holding a referendum on secession, Ukraine has not permitted such a referendum and the West, including the UK and Canada, it seems, is supporting this very contradictory position. Much as Russia's aggression, tactics and war-like stance are reprehensible, in an odd way, Russia is enabling Crimea to hold the referendum it hasn't been allowed to have until now. Remember, the United Nations is supposed to up hold the right of self-determination of a people. Is Ukraine and the West respecting this? Not at all. Question: If, when the Soviet Union collapsed, Eastern Ukraine and Crimea were given a choice as to which country they would prefer to join, would they have chosen Ukraine? Not likely. Apart from stronger historical and ethnic ties to Russia, GDP per capita is less than US$5k in Ukraine and over US$15k in Russia.
clc2
There's far more water under this bridge than you're acknowledging -- among other things, a diplomatic protocol under which Ukraine got rid of its atomic weapons in return for Russian, UK and US guaranteed borders.
Personally, I think that those voters going for the "Let's join Russia, now!" option richly deserve what they vote for, but they would probably not be in the the majority after a two sided, fair campaign outside the purview of Russian troops and gangs now patrolling the province.
J R
The Crimea have always been Russian and not Ukrainian.
xiaoblueleaf
Imagine this is happening in China, asking its many so~called
autonomous regions for referendum for which China holds
sacrosant as "internal, domestic affairs"? Ukraine has been a staunch
ally of China since the breakup of the formers USSR as most of
China's most advanced weaponry & military technologies had been
obtained not from Russia, but Ukraine since 20 years ago, including
her one & only newest aircraft carrier, & only
in most recent years buddying up with Russia for all the
pregmatic reasons. Thus, the dilemma, or there is no such
thing as principle in geopolitics, but only cost~benefits.
lucifer
I wonder what would happen if there was a referendum on whether Hong Kong should stay part ofd China?
johnfra
William Hague would not allow it and will ask the UN and the EU to place sanctions on Hong Kong.
hlu
why so naive? it's politics, who cares about principle? does U.S. really care about justice when they invaded Iraq while Iraq had no nuclear weapons at all?
khor.hankong@gmail.com
You cannot be serious. I believe China could not be more happy for the West to be embroiled in a crisis they cannot win. Putin is not likely to back down.
As a potential super power do you really think China would subscribe to some so called principles propounded by some Western commentators. Principles that Western powers ride roughshod over them whenever it suit their them.
If there is any discomfit it is the writer own and nobody else.

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