Thursday, March 27, 2014

Ukraine Crisis: The Chinese Stand and Lessons for India

Monish Gulati


As the conflict in Ukraine refuses to abate, it continues to raise fears of triggering yet another confrontation between the Cold War era adversaries – the US and Russia - in a geopolitical tussle for dominance in Europe. There is also the possibility that Ukraine itself could descend into civil war; analysts ponder to which past moment of history will the country seek to repeat: the 1968 model, when Soviet troops invaded former Czechoslovakia to put an end to the Prague Spring; or the 2008 scenario, when Russia intervened in Georgia on the issue of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Ukraine with its 45 million residents has deep geopolitical, ethnic and economic fautlines.1 While the economically weak regions in the west are bastions of nationalists, Ukraine’s major companies, like its steel mills, ship and turbine building are located in the east and are dependent on the Russian market. One narrative on the protests in the independence square in Kiev states that far-right nationalists and fascists have been at the heart of the protests and attacks on government buildings. The most active of the groups has been reported to be the rightwing Svoboda or “Freedom” Party which in the 2012 election took 10.45 percent of the vote and over 40 percent in parts of the western Ukraine. It currently has 36 deputies in the 450-member Ukrainian parliament. The latest source of tension in the region is the autonomous Crimean peninsula, which was first transferred to Ukraine in 1954, and now its parliament has just voted to be independent from Ukraine.
The Ukrainian crisis has turned out to be a severe test for global governance norms and institutions on the issues of democracy, public will and territorial sovereignty. India would draw several pointers for its foreign policy as the US, EU, Russia play out the geopolitical chess. As the situation unfolds in Ukraine, it is the Chinese position and the dynamics of China-Russia relationship that would be keenly watched by India to derive implications for its bilateral standoffs.

India’s Position

For months into the Ukraine crisis, India had remained noncommittal and no statements were forthcoming from the government. The only indication of India’s position came from a ‘tweet’ by the External Affairs Ministry (MEA) spokesperson, which read “We are closely watching fast evolving situation and hope for a peaceful resolution.” The silence was broken on 6th March after statements from both the MEA and the National Security Advisor (NSA).

The statement by MEA expressed India’s concern at the escalation of tension in Ukraine and called "for a legitimate democratic process to find full expression through free and fair elections that provide for an inclusive society."2 It added that India stood for sincere and sustained diplomatic efforts to ensure that issues between Ukraine and its neighbouring countries are resolved through constructive dialogue. However, the response of the NSA, who said, "There are legitimate Russian and other interests involved and we hope they are discussed and resolved,” was more indicative of India’s tightrope walk between deep historic ties with Russia and the Indian commitment to the inviolability of national sovereignty.

Chinese Reaction

The Chinese position on Ukraine has been gleaned by China watchers from two telephone calls, a newspaper editorial, and two foreign ministry briefings. It has left the analysts divided and China’s position declared as being of “studied ambiguity”.

Chinese President Xi Jinping was quoted on 4th March by the official Chinese media as telling Putin during a telephone call that the present situation in Ukraine was highly complicated and sensitive and that China supports proposals and mediation efforts of the international community that are conducive to reduction of tension. Russia should work towards a political settlement of the issue so as to safeguard regional and world peace and stability.3 Earlier on 3rd March, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had discussed Ukraine on telephone with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi and claimed they had “broadly coinciding points of view” on the situation in Ukraine.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said on 3rd March that "China upholds its own diplomatic principles and the basic codes for international relations, which have also been implied on the Ukraine issue," Qin said China has taken the historical and contemporary factors of the Ukraine issue into consideration and that there were reasons for the situation in Ukraine.

China’s ‘fine balancing’ has been justified on the grounds that denouncing Putin’s decision to send troops to Crimea would impact the partnership between Beijing and Moscow. Worse, standing against Moscow would mean China was supporting the position taken by the West—which could be taken as implicit support for the Ukrainian protestors. China is distrustful of “colour revolutions,” including Ukraine’s own “Orange Revolution” of 2004 as it considers the “colour revolutions/springs” as instigated by Western nations to oust unfriendly regimes. Given the circumstances, China seems to have gone as far as it can, when it abstained during the UN Security council resolution on Crimea; which not surprisingly was vetoed by Russia. However, Chinese tacit support for Russia has not come easy.

Principle of Non-Interference

The non-interference principle has served China well in diplomacy to justify its inaction in many international crisis situations from Sudan to Syria to North Korea and at the same time allowed it to take an anti-West position. China expects that the principle in turn would apply to its internal affairs, particularly the provinces and autonomous regions with restive minorities along its periphery which associate more ethnically/ culturally with China’s neighbours.4 However, support to Russia would violate China’s principle of non-interference and possibly set a precedent of China’s support for military intervention outside a country’s recognised borders—which goes against all China’s instincts, given its own issues with Tibet and Xinjiang provinces. 5

China’s relationship with Russia also has an underlying sense of competition, particularly for leadership in Central Asia, and a historical lack of trust among many within the broader citizenry of each country. Moreover, in 2008, during the Russo–Georgia conflict, Moscow failed to obtain support from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes most of the Central Asian republics. China then had remained silent, not expressing support for either side.6 Letting Russia have its way appears to undermine China’s interests in Ukraine.

Chinese Interests in Ukraine

There is another narrative on China’s balancing act on Ukraine; its commercial and non-traditional security interest. As Voice of America reports, China has strong business interests in Ukraine which would be compromised by overt Chinese support for Russia.7 Ukraine is a major source of arms and armament technology for China and a growing partner in China’s global quest for resources. China recently inked a deal to farm three million hectares of arable Ukrainian land over the span of half a century. Under the initial agreement, worth $1.7 billion, with KSG Agro, Ukraine's leading agricultural company, 100,000 hectares will be leased to Xinjiang Production and Construction Corp (XPCC), a Chinese quasi-military organization, also known as Bingtuan. The leased farmland in the eastern Dnipropetrovsk region would be cultivated principally for crops and raising pigs and the produce will be sold to two Chinese state-owned grain conglomerates at preferential prices. The project will eventually expand to three million hectares.

As part of the same deal, China’s Export-Import bank has given Ukraine a $3 billion loan for agricultural development. XPCC also intends to help build a highway in Ukraine’s Autonomous Republic of Crimea as well as a bridge across the Strait of Kerch. Ukraine is one of the world’s leading exporters of grain, and is hoping to increase production in coming years. Ukraine’s plans for its agricultural industry, coupled with China’s need to increase grain imports, will make Kiev an attractive target for increased economic cooperation with Beijing.8


Alyssa Ayres at the US-based Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) has drawn out some lessons from the Ukraine crisis. First, she highlights the importance of establishing strong “rules of the road” which are effected through functional regional institutions to resolve differences between countries. Referring to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), she says Russia’s approach on similar issues/ differences with NATO member countries in the region has been more appropriate and balanced unlike in the case of Ukraine, possibly because it is not a member of the NATO. Yet the concept has its limitation as the thought of the likely NATO reaction did not deter Russia from moving into Crimea. Nor did fear of possible alienation from the G8, or condemnation from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) appear to have any restraining effect either.

Second, the Ukrainian events accentuate the shortcomings of the UN Security Council (UNSC) and its vulnerability to use of veto power by the permanent members. Consequently EU and US have been compelled to explore other persuasive and punitive responses centred on national visa policies, economic and trade sanctions etc.9

China, a permanent member of the UNSC, over the last few months has increasingly pushed to test established global norms with regard to resolving territorial disputes as well as demonstrated an inclination to challenge the regional order. US in its pivot to Asia finds itself balancing stable US-China relations on the one hand, and the imperative to uphold the credibility of US deterrence in the face of rising concern amongst its allies on China’s ‘creeping expansionism’, on the other. Analysts warn that US will struggle to maintain this precarious balance and Chinese interests may dominate Asia in the future.10

China would be mindful of the fact that it too at some point in future could be the target of Western sanctions. Therefore, it would watch closely the drama over Ukraine and Crimea and the West-Russia confrontation to expand its portfolio of strategic options. China in this regard would also value its strategic collaboration with Russia to jointly counter Western interference.11
On 8th March on the sidelines of the National People's Congress (NPC) session, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi told media persons, on the issue of territorial disputes that ”We will not take anything that is not ours, but we will defend every inch of territory that belongs to us".12 Referring to the strained Sino-Japanese relations over the islands in the East China Sea, Wang said, "On the two issues of principle, history and territory, there is no room for compromise." This was the second time within few days (the other being in case of Ukraine) that China had used “history and territory” together to justify aggressive measures to resolve long standing territorial disputes. It is this kind of posturing that would give strategic analysts in India goose bumps, especially after the recent stand-off on territorial issues.

While the Indian approach on China has been to engage, compete and cooperate in the shared periphery and in the world, India would take certain pointers from the Ukraine crisis with respect to its prospective interactions with China. India would be conscious of the degree of consensus and cooperation Russia and China have shared on ticklish issues concerning Syria, Libya, Iran and now Ukraine. Also the fact that this understanding has included deliberations at the UNSC and that Russia may feel obliged to reciprocate Chinese support in the future. This may compromise Russian support to India during a Sino-Indian standoff. Also defence purchases which have been the mainstay of Indo-Russian partnership has been on the decline while India’s purchase of US weapons and equipment has seen a significant upswing.
India would watch the effectiveness of non-military coercive measures being deployed by EU and the US against Russia and at the same time being aware that similar measures if ever used against China would be appreciably less effective, given China’s economic staying power. Also despite the fact that Russia’s economic clout is relatively diminished compared to that of China, US is struggling to find support for its economic sanctions outside the EU. Even within the EU, dependence on energy imports from Russia, is making the implementation of non-military coercive measures that much more difficult.

India would also the seek greater and stronger partnerships on China’s periphery and in regional cooperation frameworks such as the ASEAN, BIMSTEC etc. Strategic partnerships with countries like Japan which may walk the extra mile during a crisis assume importance.

The crisis in Ukraine is not likely to go away in a hurry. Its impact on global security structures, the dynamics of US, EU, Russia and China relations and the growing Russia-China strategic partnership are the issues that India would be keenly watching.


  1. Prabhat P Shukla. The Stakes in Ukraine, VIF, March 06, 2014.
  2. Russian interests in Crimea ‘legitimate’: India, The Times of India, March 07, 2014
  3. Ibid.
  4. Shannon Van Sant. China Attempts to Strike Delicate Balance on Ukraine, VOA, March 04, 2014.
  5. Shannon Tiezzi. China Backs Russia on Ukraine, The Diplomat, March 04, 2014.
  6. Elizabeth C. Economy. China’s Soft “Nyet” to Russia’s Ukraine Intervention, CFR, March 05, 2014.
  7. Shannon Van Sant. China Attempts to Strike Delicate Balance on Ukraine, VOA, March 04, 2014.
  8. Shannon Tiezzi. China's Agricultural Deals with Ukraine in Jeopardy, The diplomat, February 28, 2014
  9. Alyssa Ayres. Ukraine’s Lessons for Asia, CFR, March 05, 2014.
  10. Benjamin Schreer. China’s rise: the strategic climate is getting colder, The Strategist, March 2014.
  11. Chen Xiangyang, Researcher & Deputy Director, Institute of World Political Studies, CICIR.
  12. Will defend every inch of territory, China warns neighbours, PTI , March 08, 2014.

(The author is an independent analyst based in New Delhi)

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