My Take

Self-interest rules in China's stance on Ukraine crisis

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 March, 2014, 4:39am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 March, 2014, 4:39am

In logic, there are paradoxes, weird statements that are false if true, and true if false.

China seems to be facing the diplomatic equivalent of a logical paradox over the crisis in Ukraine. A cornerstone of its diplomacy has been its much advertised principle of non-interference in other countries' affairs. So what should it do about Russia?

If it criticises Russia over its effective annexation of Crimea, it is, by its own standards, interfering in Moscow's affairs. But if it doesn't, it is allowing Russia to interfere with another sovereign state, an obvious violation of Beijing's own non-interference principle. The Economist, in its latest issue, picks up the latter criticism, that is, Beijing's failure to follow the Western lead to round on Russia. The article's writer accuses China of breaching its own diplomatic principle, of being hypocritical as well as guilty of double standards. He stops short of accusing Beijing of committing all the seven deadly sins.

So for China, it's damned if you do and damned if you don't. Or, is it? If China is to be accused of moral inconsistency one way or another, it naturally picks the option that best fits its own national interests. Right now, it's clear Ukraine is not its fight. Why join the West and its furious condemnations when Russia is, if not a formal ally, often a convenient and friendly counterweight to Western powers?

China is doing pretty much what other Asian countries such as Japan and India are doing over Ukraine. They are not supportive of Russia, but neither are they overly critical. China abstained rather than vote against a UN resolution condemning Crimea's referendum, engineered by Moscow, to rejoin Russia. Meanwhile India has said it realises Russia has legitimate interests in Crimea. Japan wants to avoid tougher sanctions against Russia. From the first rallies against ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine's future has been a proxy fight between Russia and the European Union plus the US; it remains so today.

From the paradoxes, we know even in pure logic, there are no absolutes. In the real world, countries do what they do to further their interests. Beijing is just far less skilful than the West in dressing up self-interest in pious moral absolutes.