China, Russia and Ukraine: signs of a ruined friendship?

China, Russia and Ukraine: signs of a ruined friendship?

-Mattia Cacciatori and Neville Li[1]


The current Ukrainian crisis holds incredible significance for China’s future role in the international system. First, it poses serious questions about the relationship between Moscow and Beijing. Second, China’s international stance on Crimea has the potential to affect Chinese domestic controversies. We have identified the hidden flaws in both internal and international strategy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the recent development of the Crimea incident. At international level, it is clear that there is a lack of communication between Moscow and Beijing before the Russians made a series of military moves towards Crimea. While Russia is currently playing a long game in promoting Eurasian Union to its former satellites states, it is possible that the buffer states between Russia and Europe would fall to Russia and form a new post-Soviet union as Putin claimed. As the Crimea situation have revealed that there is barely a solid foundation for strategic partnership between the PRC and Russia, the rise of Eurasian Union would erode the PRC interests in Central Asia in both economic and energy terms, limiting the power projection capability of the PRC.

On the other hand, the sudden collapse of Ukrainian government and the referendum of Crimea set an example for the ethnic minorities in the PRC, i.e. Tibet and Xinjiang, that it is possible to be independent especially if there are foreign powers involved. It is deemed that the Crimean incident exposed the PRC’s difficult situation in both internal legitimacy and international power projection. How Beijing has handled the Crimean situation has revealed its poor diplomatic skills, incomprehensive regional strategic planning and surging on ethnic minority tensions. With the emergence of Eurasian Union and the US’s return to Asia Pacific, it is foreseeable that there will be a restructuring balance of power in the region which makes the PRC is even harder to dominate the region as an uprising power.

This essay is composed of three main parts: first, it reviews the long-standing debate on Sino-Russian relationships in the light of the Ukrainian crisis in order to understand how the relations between the two countries under examination developed until the Crimean accident. Second, it questions the new positive feelings that the crisis created in the West regarding China, focusing especially on US reaction to the Chinese stance. This is done in order to analyze whether such feelings are motivated or are just another move in the chessboard of international politics. Third, the essay investigates the backfiring potential that the Chinese stand on Crimea holds in matters of internal stability.

Reviewing Sino-Russian Relations from the Crimea incident

The General Secretary of the CCP, Xi Jinping, attended the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, revealing his massive support to Russia as most presidents of the western powers including the US, UK, France and Germany were absent. Nonetheless Xi’s sports diplomacy moves did not paid off as Russia was spending most of its effort on the invasion of Crimea, which apparently the PRC did not realized beforehand. In fact this is not the first time for the Russian army acted “impulsively” during these peaceful international rivalries. During Beijing Olympic in 2008 the Russian forces marched to Georgia, in the same way revealing Putin’s precise judgment in picking the most unpredictable time to show his blade. The analysing of the Crimea incident contributed to justify the claim that the lacking of close strategic partnership between Russia and the PRC could be one of the biggest obstacles for the PRC emerges as a superpower in the region.

The PRC, allegedly a close partner of Russia, apparently was not informed or involved in the recent situation in the Crimean Peninsula. Regarding to the referendum in Crimea, the PRC was clearly dragged into a very awkward international position – it can neither support nor condemn the draft resolution in the United Nation Security Council (UNSC) that tried to reaffirm Ukraine’s sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity. There is no doubt that Russia would vote against the draft as it can gain direct interest from Crimea’s independence, which makes the resolution cannot be adopted as it requires the approval of all permanent members of the UNSC. If Beijing and Moscow have strong ties and communicated well on this matter, the CCP would definitely support the resolution as it is a good opportunity to improve the relationship with the west and also gain internal stability by affirming state sovereignty and territorial integrity from external influences. However the PRC abstained and forgone these interests which signalled the CCP was carefully considering whether its vote might upset Russia. It reviewed the lack of communication between Beijing and Moscow and posed reasonable doubt on the relationship of Russia and the PRC is not as close as conventionally thought.

In fact the abstention was a pain to the CCP both in terms of international relations and internal stability. Historically, the PRC foreign policy has been dominated by two main principles: protection of sovereignty and non-interference in internal affairs. These two principles are in fact two sides of the same coin which is commonly used as a shield to deflect international criticisms of its human rights situations, which accounted for one of the main reasons of the bad relationship between the PRC and the West. The foreign policy adopted by the CCP reflects its determination in maintaining the one-party rule within the land of China regardless poor human rights reputation. If the CCP seized the opportunity standing with the West and supported the resolution, the international relationship between the PRC and the West would be better off. Moreover, the CCP can play the same trick to maintain its one-party state sovereignty and territorial integrity if its ethnic minorities like Tibet, Uyghur and Hong Kong people ask for a referendum. As a result there is no way for the CCP to meddle in the internal affairs of Ukraine, rendering its sovereignty of one-party rule in the long run.

However the PRC forgone its international and internal interests as it abstained on the United Nations’ resolution to declare the Crimean secessionist referendum legal. The permanent representation of China to the UN, Jieyi Liu, claimed that Beijing is looking for a “balance” solution which requires further diplomatic efforts towards the Crimea situation[2]. This revealed the CCP did not know the Russian’s act in Crimea beforehand and considering in what way they can avoid upsetting the Russians and worsen the bilateral relationship with this former superpower next door. The lack of communication, or consideration, between Moscow and Beijing is only one explainatory model to interpret Chinese actions especially because, following the vote, Feng Shaolei, director of the Centre for Russian Studies at East China Normal University, said that “in the Ukrainian crisis, there is much common ground between China and Russia”[3].

China and the West after Crimea

Western diplomats welcomed Chinese abstention as a victory. Samantha Power, America’s UN ambassador, described Russia after the vote as “isolated, along, and wrong” on Crimea[4]. UK’s ambassador at the UN declared “Russia alone backs this referendum. Russia alone is prepared to violate international law, disregard the UN Charter, and tear up its bilateral treaties. This message will be heard well beyond the walls of this chamber”[5]. However, Western’s feelings on the issue were immediately cooled down by the CCP responses mentioned above. The international community should not take this abstention as a sign that the PRC is siding with the West on controversial issue for a variety of reasons. First, Chinese position might well be the product of rational calculations that would both support Russian desired outcomes, since only the veto of Russia was required to undermine UN’s efforts in the situation and second, the abstention might only prove that China felt extremely uncomfortable in the situation created by Putin. This is confirmed by further declarations from Beijing that underlined Washington’s hypocrisy in blaming Russia for the violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Yu Bin plainly stated that Ukraine’s sovereignty has been violated by the West well before Russian intervention in the region[6].  Therefore we must assume that if other controversies are to emerge in the region, the PRC is not likely to support US’s ideas against its historical partner. To support this statement, Vladimir Putin publicly thanked “the people of China, whose leaders have always, when considering the situation in Ukraine and Crimea, taken into account the full historical and political context”[7]. The idea of a shift of preference in Beijing from Moscow to Washington, embodied by the US in this case, is furthermore undermined by the diplomatic and economic ties that bind Russia and China. Diplomatically the two countries have been siding together within the UN’s Security Council in extremely controversial situations such as Darfur and Syria. President Xi’s first international visit was significantly to Moscow. Furthermore, the ideological and cultural ties that form the basis of Sino-Russian relationships are to be retraced back to the beginning of the Cold War. Economically, a sign of the importance of this relation is embodied by the set of energy contracts signed last October that, according to Mark Strasser, “will pump $85 billion worth of Russian oil into an energy-hungry China over the next 10 years”[8].

Despite of the fact that the PRC and Russia are in the same side declining universal values such as human rights and democracy, we discovered the political development in Crimea actually harms the PRC’s economic interests and its power projection to European states in many ways. In 2013 Chinese-Ukrainian summit, Ukraine and the PRC agreed to build a deep-water port in Crimea, aiming at boosting the exportation to the EU. The CCP was planning to invest USD $10 billion for the construction of the port and the infrastructure. However, with the Russians taking over Crimea, Russia’s ambassador to the European Union Vladimir Chizhov claimed that Russia is now cooperate with the PRC in this project[9]. It raises reasonable doubt that whether Russia is taking advantage on the CCP and being a free rider in this cooperation. It is foreseeable that there would be a series of power politics in the deep water port project that both countries would opt for it as leverage for power projection to the EU. Although the CCP and Russia have shared the same notion on declining universal values such as human rights and democracy, it seems that there is not solid evidence that both countries are moving beyond that line especially in regional strategic partnership. It is prominent for the PRC to take a firm stance on Sino-Russian relationship and formulate solid diplomatic and strategic plans in the long run. The CCP should alert the signal from the Crimea incident and reconsider its relationship with its great neighbour next door. To the PRC, Russia is even greater potential danger than the US not only because the sharing the same border, but also as no one can foresee what Putin’s next step is after invading Crimea and Georgia, not to mention the upcoming Eurasian Union in 2015. Russia is now clearly on the upside of the game in regional power expansion.

The challenges to the PRC’s internal stability from the Crimea incident

It is clear that China is now at least weighting the benefits of the close relation the country has developed with Russia. The noncommittal comments coming from Beijing’s spokespersons reflect Chinese doubts and fears to support a separatist movement, even if it is far away from its interests’ areas. Hong Lei, during a press conference, bluntly declared that “China respects all countries equally”[10]. Another way to understand Beijing’s reluctance to support Russia in Crimea is that the idea of a popular vote to fuel a region’s quest to independence can backfire enormously in Chinese internal affairs. The situations in Tibet and Xinjiang provinces for instance are not that dissimilar to what we have witnessed in Crimea. Beijing is unlikely to tolerate a separatist spark, fuelled by Russian behaviour in Ukraine. Historically China always declared its contrariness to separatist movements. The fact that this time Beijing has been relatively quiet was perceived in the West as potentially undermining Chinese pretences in Tibet and Xinjiang. On the contrary however, the fact that China has not publicly supported Crimea independence, not even when backed by the Putin’s government, demonstrates that this domestic policy is unlikely to change in the near future and its highly valued in Beijing.

It has to be noted that the Crimean incident underlined how external forces might sustain internal claims for independence. As Malyarenko and Galbreath underlined one of the main reasons leading to Crimea conflict was the external influence from Russia[11]. American journalist Anne Applebaum also suggested that this conflict was a ‘Provokatsiya’ planned by the KGB, aiming to weaken Ukraine and consume East Ukraine[12]. Reviewing the outbreak of Crimea incident, it has to be noted that there were various Russian organizations facilitating the referendum. One of the Russian gangster organizations, Nochnye Volki (Night Wolves), was also been spotted in Crimea maintaining the local order during the invasion[13]. This to a certain extend reinforce Applebaum’s claim that the Russians are deeply involved in the Crimea incident.

  These external influences leading  hit the nerves of Chinese Communist officials as they seriously perceive these as concrete potential threats. In fact after the Crimea incident, Moldova expressed their view to follow the path of Crimea having a referendum. Orenstein and Mizsei pointed out that Moldova is also in a struggle between the EU and Russia that the pro-Russian Moldavians have formed the Transnistria Moldavian Republic[14]. Their separating movements are greatly supported by the Russia that the Russian army would even march through the land of Moldova to maintain the local order as in Crimea. It worries the CCP has to be caution to prevent the coalition of internal separatist and foreign powers. The recent formation of the National Security Council is one of the security moves that aimed at internal instability. It is also noted that the national expenses of internal stability maintenance, known as ‘weiwen’ is way higher than the external military expenses, which reflects what the CCP fears most is not external threats, but internal instability that challenging its one-party rule.

There are numerous ethnic conflicts in the autonomous regions of the PRC such as Tibet and Xinjiang. The unrest unease of the CCP is heightened by the Crimea incident and they are now tightening the regulative measures in autonomous regions of minority groups, in order to suppress the ethnic minority conflicts and ease any bad influence from the Crimea incident. Regarding to recent Uyghur separatist attacks, the CCP claimed that they would employ more heavy-armed polices who can shot anyone who is suspected committing separatist act without any warning[15]. The CCP tried to link all these independent moments of ethnic minorities to “terrorism” and therefore legitimizing its violence suppression for internal stability. In fact there were numerous oppositions by the minorities that led to bloody uprising such as the military assault in Tibet in 1959. Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, was forced to leave his own land after these bloody suppressions and seeking international recognition for the independence of Tibet.

All these violence reactions revealed the bottom line of the CCP is to maintain its legitimacy of as a one-party rule. It seems that president Xi would like follow the path of Putin’s strong rule for both internal stability and emergence as a regional superpower. The high pressure suppressions can also be reviewed from the recent CCP’s white paper on Hong Kong. The white paper declined the “one country, two systems” and the basic law of Hong Kong that Hong Kong remains high degree of autonomy for 50 years after the handover in 1997[16]. It claims that the CCP has “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong and its official newspaper Global Times warned the oppositions in Hong Kong not to follow Ukraine or Thailand. The Crimea incident did exposed the anxiety of the CCP about its internal stability and the lacking of a firm stance towards the relationship with Russia. The CCP in terms of diplomatic skills, strategic planning and internal stability is still far from emerging as a regional superpower. Nonetheless the US has already targeted the PRC as a competitor to contain as the Thucydides’s trap suggested. In compare with Russia, even it inherited the superpower capacity of Soviet Union, it escaped from the Thycydides’s trap with Putin’s diplomacy skills.


There are two Chinese stances that are to be noted in the light of the recent Crimean crisis.  First, the international position that China holds now in the international chessboard is not strong enough to produce a stand-alone Chinese hegemony. The lack of international reputation and diplomatic weight make us believe that Beijing still needs a powerful ally to broaden its spectrum of influence. Provided the geographical, cultural, ideological and economic ties that bind Beijing and Moscow, the aforementioned ally is most likely to be Putin. A strong coalition with Russia would be wise as it can be leverage to the Eurasian Union. Secondly, the abstention on Crimea actually prevent the CCP fall into a difficult position over its ethnic tensions. Since Beijing chose not to stand formally with its historical ally Russia on Crimea, its policies on suppressing internal instability can be perceived as strengthening. The abstention enables the country persists in the principle of non-intervention and avoid external criticisms of its own ethnic tensions.

[1] The authors contributed equally to this conversational paper. Neville Li is a Ph.D. student at University of Bath. His research interests focus on International Relations in Asia-Pacific and Demographic aspects of Security.










[11] Malyarenko, T. and Galbreath, D. J., 2013. Crimea : Competing self-determination movements and the politics at the centre. Europe-Asia Studies, 65 (5), pp. 912-928.