Eurasia

Is China Siding With Putin in the Ukraine Crisis?


Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi

Photograph by Giorgio Cosulich/Getty Images

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi

China’s leaders are struggling to come up with a comprehensible position on the crisis in Ukraine. The Chinese might naturally sympathize with Vladimir Putin, someone willing to stick it to Western leaders such as President Obama. However, China has long opposed actions that smack of interference in other countries’ internal affairs, in part to keep outsiders away from such sensitive issues as Tibet and Chinese dissidents.

So for now, the government’s solution seems to be simple: obfuscate. The Chinese and Russian foreign ministers spoke by telephone today, and while Russia’s Sergei Lavrov said afterwards that the two countries are in agreement about the crisis, China’s official spokesman shied away from taking a stand.

First, the Russian take: According to the Voice of America, Putin’s foreign ministry said today, “Russia and China have coinciding views on the situation in Ukraine.”

But do they? China’s official Xinhua news agency yesterday reported China’s position, as articulated by a Foreign Ministry spokesman: “China always sticks to the principle of non-interference in any country’s internal affairs and respects the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”

Then, late today (China time), came what might seem like a word-salad of a statement from official spokesman Qin Gang elaborating on the one from Sunday. “China upholds its own diplomatic principles and the basic codes for international relations, which have also been implied on the Ukraine issue,” Qin said when asked for comments on Russia’s actions. “Meanwhile, we have also taken the historical and contemporary factors of the Ukraine issue into consideration.”

Xinhua helpfully explained that this comment “clarifies” China’s position on Russia’s actions in Crimea.

And strangely enough, it might. Without stating publicly that they’re giving Putin a pass for interfering in Ukraine, the Chinese seem to be leaning more toward the Russians and against the West. Or, as Qin cryptically put it, “there have been reasons for today’s situation in Ukraine.” Hard to argue with that. There have indeed been reasons for what’s going on in Ukraine, just as there have been reasons for what’s going on in lots of places. Do the Ukrainian reasons mean China’s willing to look the other way when Russia interferes in a neighboring country?

The Chinese aren’t saying that just yet. But with China possessing veto power on the United Nations Security Council, the government probably won’t be able to keep quiet much longer.

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Einhorn is Asia regional editor in Bloomberg Businessweek’s Hong Kong bureau. Follow him on Twitter @BruceEinhorn.

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