For China, Crimea lessons must be heeded

Philip Bowring says for both Russia and China, each with its own racial cauldron, any redrawing of national borders based on ethnicity may set a dangerous precedent

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 March, 2014, 3:47am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 March, 2014, 3:47am

With his actions in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has opened a large can of worms with long-term global consequences, not least for Russia and China. He has simultaneously challenged two aspects of the world order set at the end of the second world war and the dismantling of European empires: the permanence of boundaries of states with sovereignty protected by the United Nations; and the inadmissibility of ethnicity as the primary identifier of states.

There have been many instances of interference by one country in another, not least by the US in Iraq. But Crimea is unique as an overt territorial expansion by a significant country.

Of course, Crimea was part of Russia, with a largely Russian-speaking population, until Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine, presumably never contemplating the possibility of Ukraine becoming genuinely independent of Moscow.

But Putin has also set himself up as defender of the interests of ethnic Russians in Ukraine more broadly. This is a dangerous precedent for several reasons. Firstly, it suggests that acquisition of Russian-majority regions in eastern and southern Ukraine will sooner or later become a target for further Russian expansion, or that Moscow will use these people to disrupt an already chaotic Ukraine.

Far-sighted Ukrainians might do better to let these regions go now, but nationalism, not rationalism, rules on both sides of the border.

Next, however, it raises the issue of the Russian minorities in other parts of the former Soviet empire, notably the Baltic states and Kazakhstan, where 25 per cent of its 17 million people are Russian. It may seem far-fetched that Putin is trying to recreate the Russian empire of tsars and commissars but Russia remains vastly stronger than the nations of its "near-abroad". Furthermore, Stalin drew the boundaries of Central Asian states to include large minorities from neighbouring ones, and used deportations of ethnic groups and settlement of Russians to dilute non-Russian nationalism.

In the longer run, Russian ambitions are doomed by demography - Russian populations are shrinking while those of Kazakhs, Uzbeks and the like continue to rise. But, meanwhile, Putin has given notice that he can and will use ethnic Russians as levers.

Ethnic-based politics, however, is a two-edged sword. Putin may have largely suppressed the Chechen separatists but Chechnya's majority Chechen population would relish freedom from the Russian yoke. The same applies to Dagestan.

The break-up of old empires into combative ethnic-based states is not necessarily desirable. But it is the natural result of disturbances of the status quo, as illustrated by Putin - even if that was sparked by Moscow's fear that Ukraine was leaving the Russian orbit by getting closer to the European Union.

This all has lessons for China. Its acquiescence in Russia's action is contrary to its long-held commitment to the principle of non-intervention. For now, it sees advantage in what is a setback for the West.

However, Putin's actions raise two fundamental questions for China. First, will it now go down the road of self-proclaimed protector of ethnic Chinese everywhere, particularly in Southeast Asian countries with significant minorities? If so, will that increase its influence in the region or simply antagonise 500 million neighbours of Malay and Vietnamese origin, and the like?

The Malaysia Airlines plane saga sparked demands that China take the lead in the search because most of the passengers were Chinese citizens and ethnic Chinese from Malaysia. Judging by some mainland media, Chinese often assume Chinese ethnicity must equate with loyalty to the "motherland", that is, Beijing. Insults hurled at former US ambassador Gary Locke as a "banana" - yellow outside, white inside - show how prevalent racial assumptions are in China. Religion forms an additional barrier, given the fear and disdain that so many Russians and Chinese have for their Muslim compatriots.

China's sheer size compared with its southern neighbours gives it enormous clout to impose its will. Yet, like for the Russians, demography, once the spur to expansion and colonisation, now works in favour of its neighbours.

Similarly, if China is to emphasise ethnic identity as a feature of its identity and diplomacy, it will never solve the problem of its disturbed minority regions, Tibet and Xinjiang. Indeed, as a start, China could stop treating its non-Han inhabitants as, at best, backward tribes.

Instead, China needs reminding that for 500 years, from around 750, Central Asia - stretching from northeast Iran and northern Afghanistan eastward to the borders of Gansu and north into Kazakhstan - was the scientific and intellectual capital of the world. The writings in Arabic, Persian and Turkic of men from Merv, Bukhara, Samarkand and Kashgar revolutionised astronomy, mathematics, medicine and other disciplines, after drawing from Greek, Persian, Indian and other sources.

If Xinjiang really is now part of China, this is part of national history which should be taught, not some Han-centric version which sees Turkic peoples as barbarian in the same way the Russians do.

Philip Bowring is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator