Chinese leaders find themselves in a most uncomfortable position as animosity between Washington and Moscow reaches levels not seen since the Cold War. Beijing would desperately like to stay out of the diplomatic fray, but that is a difficult stance to maintain, given the important political, economic, and strategic relations that China has with both sides.
There were potential pitfalls for Beijing even before the onset of the current, dangerous spat between Russia and the West regarding the situation in Ukraine. Relations between the U.S.-led NATO bloc and the Kremlin had been deteriorating for years, punctuated by the armed conflict between Russia and Georgia in 2008. Chinese policymakers understood the Putin government's rising anger about NATO's eastward expansion to the border of the Russian Federation—especially with the incorporation of the Baltic republics. Even more provocative was the brazen lobbying by Senator John McCain and other hawkish Russophobes in the United States to expand the alliance still farther by bringing such nations as Georgia and Ukraine into the fold.
But Moscow's response to those provocations also troubled Beijing. Not only did the Kremlin strongly back the secessionist ambitions of two regions in Georgia, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, but when the Tbilisi regime tried to suppress that rebellion, Moscow launched a military offensive deep into Georgia. For China, the Georgian war intensified a worrisome trend toward secessionism and fragmentation in the international system. Beijing pointedly declined to endorse Russia's military action against Tbilisi. The Chinese government also refused to recognize the subsequent, Kremlin-orchestrated declarations of independence by South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
Both the Crimean crisis and the West's reaction to it have compounded China's uneasiness. As with NATO expansion and the Georgian dispute, Chinese leaders grasped that the United States and its European allies arrogantly provoked Russia regarding developments in Ukraine. Washington's blatant encouragement of the Maidan demonstrators and their efforts to overthrow Ukraine's pro-Russian but duly elected government headed by President Viktor Yanukovych was especially unhelpful. But as in the 2008 Georgia episode, Putin's response also alarmed Beijing. The Kremlin's military intervention in Crimea and the hastily organized referendum to detach that territory from Ukraine and annex it to Russia were alarming developments from China's standpoint. Given Beijing's long-standing worries about secessionist tendencies in both Tibet and Xinjiang (not to mention concerns about Taiwan's continuing de facto independence), Xi Jinping's government was not eager to see another precedent set whereby secession took place in the aftermath of a foreign military intervention.
The West's decision to escalate the confrontation by imposing harsh economic sanctions on Russia, though, makes matters difficult for China. Chinese policymakers hardly wish even to tacitly embrace the Kremlin's moves in Crimea, much less the subsequent efforts to support rebel forces in eastern Ukraine that clearly pursue a secessionist agenda. At the same time, though, Beijing steadfastly refuses to join the sanctions directed against Moscow.
Two high-priority Chinese foreign policy objectives are now in conflict. Beijing does not want to encourage the increasingly evident prevalence of secession in the international system. The breakup of the Soviet Union, the violent fragmentation of Yugoslavia, the emergence of South Sudan, and the increasing prospects of an independent Kurdistan arising from the wreckage of Iraq and Syria, all confirm a powerful trend. Russia's actions in Georgia and Ukraine have given that trend a major boost, much to Beijing's dismay.
Chinese leaders are reluctant to join the West's campaign of coercion against Moscow, however. Not only is Russia an important partner in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the two countries have important mutual economic interests in Central Asia and elsewhere. The multi-billion dollar bilateral energy deal that the two governments recently signed epitomizes those vital ties.
China also wants a friendly, cooperative relationship with Russia because of crucial security issues in East Asia. The rapidly strengthening alliance between the United States and Japan understandably concerns Beijing, as does Washington's unsubtle support for Vietnam, the Philippines, and other Chinese rivals in the South China Sea. The last thing China wants to do is help weaken Russia at a time when Beijing may need Russian support (or at least benevolent neutrality) as the United States and a growing array of U.S. security partners tighten an implicit containment policy directed against China.
Those strategic considerations may well override Beijing's apprehension about the Kremlin's encouragement of secession in territories adjacent to Russia. The Chinese government is assuredly not happy about that aspect of Russian policy, but given the actions of Washington and its East Asian allies, it is highly improbable that Beijing will join the West's punishment policy against the Putin government anytime soon. Instead, China will likely continue a cautious, ostensibly neutral course, one that seeks to avoid alienating either Russia or Beijing's crucial economic partner—the United States. Despite the official diplomatic neutrality, though, China's policy is likely to exhibit a modest pro-Russian tilt. Beijing is more worried about the capabilities and ambitions of the world's superpower than those of a declining power with capabilities and ambitions largely confined to its immediate neighborhood.