Written by Christopher Marsh.

Much of the focus on Sino-Russian relations relates to the two nations’ economic, political, military, and social interactions. But there is more to the relationship than simple bi-lateral ties. There is a rather solid body of literature on the mutual perception of these two societies, dating back to the Soviet era. This body of literature illuminates the many underlying tensions that have often existed in relations between Moscow and Beijing. Today is no different, as Russia’s annexation of Crimea and meddling in eastern Ukraine problematize China’s relations with Russia and Ukraine, and perhaps threaten Beijing’s vision of a multipolar world and its peaceful rise in it.

Very early on in the Ukraine crisis China tried to navigate an independent, non-confrontational approach, one that even bordered on the apologetic. As the Chinese press stated at the time, “The strategic position of Ukraine is very important. The US and the EU want to continue to compress Russia’s strategic space by pulling Ukraine into the Western sphere of influence, while Russia is determined to continue the strategic front of its rejuvenation by maintaining its influence over Ukraine.
If Ukraine wants to depend on foreign forces to solve its domestic problems it may find that things do not turn out as planned.” As the piece concluded, it is “not wise for its domestic political factions to invest all their faith in either the West or Russia,” a statement very much in line with Beijing’s desire to see the emergence of a multipolar world, one in which no state dominates international relations.

“No Exclusive Interests Involved”

Such a position was also clearly in line with China’s recent trend of increasingly warm relations with Russia. China stated at the time that it had “no exclusive interests involved,” hoping it could stand by the side-lines and not have to take a stand on the crisis. China also offered that the starting point for resolving the Ukraine crisis was “to protect the fundamental interests of the Ukrainian people and maintain a peaceful and stable regional environment.” In terms of responsibility, “both domestic and foreign forces” were deemed responsible for the crisis. “It is imperative for all parties to avoid doing anything to increase regional tension. The crisis must be resolved through calm political and diplomatic measures,” Beijing argued.

As the crisis evolved, however, and as it became clear that Russia was not going to halt its operations, China was forced to alter its stance. Soon, the annexation of Crimea would be something that was nearly inevitable, not a clear act of aggression, and Kiev would be as much at fault for the crisis as was Moscow.

In an article in China’s leading Russian studies journal Eluosi yanjiu (俄罗斯研究, Russian Studies), Feng Shuai (封帅) argued in the summer of 2014 that throughout the post-Soviet period Crimea failed to develop its own distinct identity and this ultimately led to Crimeans embracing reunification with Russia. Feng is one of China’s leading scholars of Russia and the former Soviet Union and is at the Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies. He is very familiar with the current Russian and Western literature on the subject of nation-building and identity construction, and deeply knowledgeable of Russian history. Thus, his analysis carries significant weight in China.

In this article, Feng traces Crimea’s existence throughout history, focusing primarily on the Soviet and post-Soviet periods. The essence of his argument is that Kiev was unable to develop a viable Ukrainian national identity that included Crimea, and Crimean Tatars were not able to develop a distinct Crimean identity, not least because they are not the majority of the population on the peninsula. So the strengthening of a Russian national identity among residents of Crimea was almost inevitable, and with Moscow’s “support” it became “unstoppable.” The acts of aggression and the violation of territorial sovereignty are of course lacking from such an account of the Ukraine crisis.

The “Reunification” of Crimea

Where Feng’s interpretation of events differs from the dominant narrative in the West is that he sees Crimea as genuinely embracing Russian identity and reunification (rather than annexation) with Russia. As Feng put it, Crimea’s joining with Russia was “ultimately inseparable from the interference of external forces, but [it was done with] the overwhelming vote of Crimean residents… the majority of Crimean residents support this change…[and] one can even say that they have been looking forward to” it. In this way, the ends justify Russia’s means.

This interpretation is becoming the dominant one in China today, partly due to Beijing’s strategic relationship with Moscow. But the PRC also has strong economic and diplomatic ties with Kiev, and this is at least partly responsible for the more moderate approach to its interpretation and lack of outright condemnation of Russian actions in Ukraine.

Another factor that is certainly involved is the analogous situation that exists with Taiwan, a territory Beijing argues it has rights in and which it may someday seek to exert, either in a similar or dissimilar fashion to Russia’s military operations in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Thus the Chinese coverage of the Ukraine crisis has a conspicuous absence of any blame on Putin himself and certainly no talk of Russian aggression. As for Crimea itself, since China still hopes for the reintegration of Taiwan, it cannot help but be sympathetic – if not even perhaps jealous – of Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

In addition to the annexation of Crimea, there is Russia’s continuing operations – both overt and covert – in eastern Ukraine. China continues to refer to this involvement beyond Crimea as “alleged.” As recently stated in an article in Xinhua, relations between Russia and the West “have deteriorated over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and alleged involvement in the Ukraine crisis” (emphasis added). Moreover, Russia is “burdened by” the “confrontation” with Ukraine. In short, the Ukraine crisis “plagues” Moscow’s relations with the West.

A Threat to the Silk Road Spirit?

Although China is not blaming Russia outright for the events in Ukraine, neither are they condoning the violence, which they seem as quite regrettable. But again, Ukraine is not seen as innocent; its cooperation with the West and flirtation with NATO forced Russia’s hand. But China has economic and even security interests in the region, as it seeks to promote the “Silk Road Spirit” – its vision of “peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefit.” As it seeks the deeper integration of markets among the countries along the Belt and Road, thereby jointly creating an open, inclusive and balanced regional economic cooperation architecture that benefits all, violence anywhere along the New Silk Road poses a threat to Beijing’s vision. The question is, can it continue to turn a blind eye to Russian action in its near abroad, particularly if Moscow becomes increasingly belligerent in the years to come.

Christopher Marsh is Professor of National Security and Strategic Studies at the U.S. Army School of Advanced Military Studies in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Image credit: CC by Sasha Maksymenko/Flickr.