• Wed
  • Sep 3, 2014
  • Updated: 2:16pm
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 March, 2014, 3:47am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 March, 2014, 3:47am

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


Philip Bowring has been based in Asia for 39 years writing on regional financial and political issues. He has been a columnist for the South China Morning Post since the mid-1990s and for the International Herald Tribune from 1992 to 2011. He also contributes regularly to the Wall Street Journal, www.asiasentinel.com, a website of which he is a founder, and elsewhere. Prior to 1992 he was with the weekly Far Eastern Economic Review, latterly as editor.

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


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This article is now closed to comments

chinese government commits a genocide against Uighurs and Tibetian.But everything comes to the end and china and chinese people will stand Soon in front of the World Court and take all responsibilities in terms of what hatecrime they committed against Uighurs and Tibetians!!
kevin(xiao minayo) chen, the author underlined in the article that you and all chanese are brainwashed!
it is not your fault to say that Xingiang are part of china(though Xingiang Means-new territory in chinese), you just got this silly idea at school.
Actually the real china are behind the great chinese wall, if you will look back into history the chinese built up this wall because of the Uighurs!!
The author is not competent in the new history of Crimea. The main feature of the situation is that Crimea and especially Sevastopol were given Ukraine against the laws of Soviet Union and against international laws. (Sevastopol region was under direct law of SU government in Moskow and never oficially was given to Ukraine). For more than 200 years Crimea was a part of Russia. It transfer to UkraineSoviet Republic in 1954 was just a kind of formality. Moreover While destroying of the Soviet Union Crimean Republic was not given a right to make the choice to join to Russia.
So Ukraine was the country who broken the law.
Secondly Kiev rebellion made the Kiev’s hunta out of the Ukrainian constitution.
The other important feature of the situation is that Russian rebellion in Sevastopol on 23rd February was a real surprise for Russia and we were fighting against Kiev’s hunta without any sign of support from official Russia until 28th of February. Refusing from our support would be a kind of commiting political suicide for Putin.
So I recommend the author to learn a bit of Crimea history in details before publishing such pretending articles. In other words the article is not smart enough for such a respectful newspaper as SCMP.
China, like Russia, can simply adopt double standards.
Generar un problema para venderte la solucion, los paises que tienen real peso terrestre tienen que arreglar sus asuntos sin intervencion externa, el desarrollo de los acontecimientos en crimea muestra liderasgo y determinacion con uso moderado de fuerza y respeto humano que no se a visto en historias recientes de conflictos ejemplo Libia.-
liderazgo; no se ha visto
you summed it well, when you start to assume the use of ethnicity as an excuse to occupy and to determine ownership of territory? it's a slippy road down into uncertainty, the fact that China perceives overseas Chinese as the "Panda Off-springs" meaning, even if you are born in a foreign country and live there all your life, you still belong to China is a dangerous assumption.
And looking into how they have treated Tibet and Xianjiang, they are just as ruthless to introduce an import of Han Chinese migration to dilute the native and ethnic majority to bring the territory into the Sinosphere.
Personally i feel, this ignorance of the basic respect of national boundaries in the eyes of International law, will pave the way to further conflict in the future, as long as China keeps promoting it's jigonistic propaganda to its citizens.
And that may not always be in China's favour........
Kevin Chen
Except the Uyghur are not the "native majority" and never have been. They're invaders, and the Han are settled in Dzungaria which the Manchu and Eastern Mongols ethnically cleansed of Western Mongols. The Karluk-Uyghur have no right to any land in China, period.
Welldone Mr. Putin. Lots of Chinese are cheering for you. I like it most when you said something like the West, especially the devilish Americans, calling black white and vice versa wheneve it suited them. You have really thought those whites led by a primate a lesson. Bravo




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