As the situation deteriorates in Ukraine, the United States and its European allies are looking for means to pressure Moscow, while recognizing that options—military or otherwise—are limited. The question has been raised: Could China be counted upon to press Vladimir Putin to limit his incursion?
After all, China has long enunciated a principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. More practically, China has invested significant sums in Ukraine; most recently, it leased some 100,000 hectares, although other disputed reports had ranged as high as 3 million hectares.
Moreover, in 2008, during the Russo–Georgia conflict, Moscow failed to obtain support from the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes not only China and Russia, but most of the Central Asian republics. Notably, China remained silent, not expressing support for either side.
In the current crisis, Beijing has similarly engaged in a studied neutrality in its pronouncements. For the past two weeks, Chinese Foreign Ministry officials have responded to questions about China’s position on Ukrainian developments by referencing China’s respect for Ukrainian sovereignty, even while emphasizing the importance of understanding the “relevant history.”
But reports that China has decided to call in a $3 billion loan to Ukraine, at this time, suggests that China’s position is anything but neutral. Given the precarious state of Ukrainian finances, such reports clearly affect perceptions of Kiev’s stability and economic viability. At the same time, the Chinese have given no indication that they oppose Russia’s moves into the Crimea, including the mobilization of military forces.
If China and Russia have competing interests, they also have shared antipathies—namely of the United States. China is unlikely to find common cause with the United States, especially by antagonizing Russia.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s criticisms of Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies leading to the fall of the USSR only highlight Beijing’s view that the world should be made safe for autocracies. To that end, Beijing is much more likely to side with Moscow than Washington.