Why China will back Russia on Ukraine


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The possibility of excluding Russia from the G8 is currently being discussed, among Western powers, as a low-cost yet highly symbolic move to isolate and punish Russia for its invasion of Ukraine. In this context, several analysts have wondered how China will react to Russia's recent move. After all, to truly isolate Russia, China would have to align with the United States and Europe and condemn Moscow.

Alan Alexandroff, a professor of international affairs at the University of Toronto, recently expressed his hope that China and other emerging powers would support the West's strategy of isolating Russia: 

.. how should the BRICS react to Russia’s aggressive behavior? Surely intervention of the sort underway by Russia can’t possibly match the ideals of countries like Brazil, or India or South Africa, or even a China. These are countries that defend national sovereignty at all costs and insist, insistently, on non interference in the domestic affairs of other countries. (...) In particular with Brazil hosting the next BRICS summit, we need to hear from President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil whether Russia’s participation should be suspended.

Yet Beijing's perspective is likely to be different.

As Lu Yu writes for Xinhua (probably reflecting China's official position),

Based on the fact that Russia and Ukraine have deep cultural, historical and economic connections, it is time for Western powers to abandon their Cold War thinking, stop trying to exclude Russia from the political crisis they failed to mediate, and respect Russia's unique role in mapping out the future of Ukraine.

Notably, Lu's article contains no criticism for Russia’s decision to send its armed forces to Crimea:

It is quite understandable when Putin said his country retained the right to protect its interests and Russian-speakers living in Ukraine. (...) The United States and European countries must work with, not against, Russia to tackle the Ukraine crisis.

TIME argued that Russia's intervention was putting China in "an awkward spot". In a way, this is true. Openly supporting Russia's occupation, a clear violation of international law, would contradict China's long-cherished principle of non-intervention, and could provide an argument for separatists in Tibet and Xinjiang.

Yet why would China, unlike any other great power, not bend its principles in favor of realpolitik?  Criticizing Moscow would not only imperil a crucial strategic partnership, but also implicitly approve of the West's support of the revolution in Kiev. As an unsigned (i.e. reflecting China's official position) op-ed in China's Global Times bluntly puts it,

The evolution of the Ukrainian situation shows us clearly that in the international political arena, principles are decided by power. Without its support and blessing, no principle can prevail.

In the end, China is unlikely to take a clear stand. In essence, that is a victory for Vladimir Putin, as Beijing will not actively go along with the West. China will, together with Russia, veto any strong resolution against Moscow in the UNSC. It will make sure that President Putin continues to be invited to the yearly BRICS Summits (should Brazil, South Africa or India suggest Russia's exclusion). China is thus likely to be an important element in reducing the effectiveness of Western attempts to isolate Russia.

Read also:

Can Xi be the new Deng?

Book review: “China Goes Global: The Partial Power” by David Shambaugh

Should the world try to democratize China?

Photo credit: AFP