Most experts in international relations seem to believe that the developments in Ukraine have put Beijing in an awkward position. With America's pivot to the Asia-Pacific, Russia has grown in strategic importance to China. However, Russia's actions in Ukraine and its absorption of Crimea seem to contravene China's long-held principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states.
The secession referendum in Crimea has sensitive implications for China as it deals with its own separatist issues in Taiwan and Tibet . China's equivocal public pronouncements on Ukraine are cited as proof that it is in a bind. However, this is a misreading of China's behaviour.
China is, in fact, exploiting the situation with strategic foresight and tactical agility. Its reaction is also consistent with its nuanced understanding of international relations in general and the Ukrainian crisis in particular.
Beijing has taken a subtle official position. It has asserted the principle of non-interference and respect for Ukraine's territorial integrity while also emphasising that it recognises the complexity of both the historic conditions and the current state of affairs in Ukraine. It should be fairly clear to any foreign policy realist that China's approach is to maintain formal neutrality while providing tacit support to Russia without causing an adversarial rift with the Western alliance.
Even with a Russian veto, China still chose to abstain from the UN Security Council vote on the US-backed resolution condemning the Crimea referendum. This strategy is consistent with China's long-term geopolitical interests.
One of Beijing's overriding strategic objectives is to foster the development of a multipolar world in which US hegemony is checked and China gradually gains the space to reclaim its leadership role in the Asia-Pacific. Russia's re-emergence as a great power 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union is conducive to this. America's dominance in global affairs is in relative decline. Its much-touted "pivot to Asia" says as much. After all, one can only pivot to one place at a time. Even before Ukraine, America's pivot seemed to have been redirected back towards the Middle East. Now, no doubt, it has to pivot to Russia. A continuously pivoting superpower serves China's interests.
From the Chinese perspective, whether Russia's actions contradict China's principle of non-interference may not be such an open-and-shut case.
The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union was followed by a chaotic re-arrangement of the world order, with an imbalance of power overwhelmingly in favour of the Western alliance. It is a fact that the people of Russia and many former Soviet republics suffered in the aftermath of the cold war. Thus, the legitimacy of borders settled in such circumstances can be debatable. Crimea is a case in point.
The Chinese may also have seen that the overthrow of the Ukrainian government was caused in no small part by active Western interference. Senior American and European officials were conspicuously present during the protests in Kiev's main square. One leading US diplomat was recorded in a telephone discussion about a possible future government before the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych's administration. So, at the very least, there was interference on both sides. The second aspect of the worsening conflict between Russia and the West has to do with the important relationship between Moscow and Beijing. Russia's strategic importance to China covers three dimensions: energy supply, China's strategic objectives in the Asia-Pacific and China's interests in Central Asia.
A Russia under severe sanctions by a hostile Western alliance would be more reliant on China. In return, Chinese interests would be better served in all three arenas. Russia's supply of natural gas to China would be on better terms and pipelines could be built in ways more favourable to Chinese interests. Russia's role in the Asia-Pacific, especially vis-à-vis Japan, could be steered more towards China's preferences. More space may be afforded the Chinese in their push to develop a new "silk road" through Central Asia.
China wants its rise to be peaceful. And a new geopolitical paradigm is required to bring this about. This is what President Xi Jinping proposed to US President Barack Obama during their summit in California when he called for a new model of major-power relations. A major power, or daguo, is a major nation-state with a civilisational sphere of influence. In China's view, only effective co-operation and management of competition among the major powers can ensure the peaceful emergence of a new global order.
Of course, China sees itself as a daguo. The US and Russia are surely on that list as well. According to this new doctrine, core interests and spheres of influence are to be respected. China is indeed gradually asserting its own Monroe Doctrine in the Asia-Pacific.
It is almost certain that Chinese policymakers would consider Ukraine to be within Russia's sphere of influence. Ukraine is at best of peripheral interest to the West, yet actions taken by the West have seriously harmed Russia's core interests. In that respect, China's subtle support for Russia is consistent with its long-term foreign policy grand strategy. No doubt, tactical agility and some deft manoeuvring will still be required by China to carry out its strategy with regard to Ukraine. There are many unpredictable forces shaping events. But at present, short of a major blunder, the downside for China is minimal.
Would anyone in Taiwan or Tibet seriously think China's acquiescence to a Crimean separation referendum would mean they could get away with one, too? Probably not. Can the Chinese walk a tightrope on neutrality so as not to trigger a confrontation with the West? Their track record would indicate a "yes".
Eric X. Li is a venture capitalist and political scientist in Shanghai. He is a senior fellow at Fudan University's Centre for Chinese Development Model Research