The principle of non-intervention is not only a guiding principle in Chinese foreign policy, it has also been a cornerstone in Sino-Russian “convergence” since the nineties. No wonder then that the Chinese are displeased with the Russian de facto annexation of Crimea in connection with the crisis in Ukraine. That said, China has only partly condemned Russia and the view that Russia “has not been respected” seems to be widespread. There is a high degree of understanding for Russian reasoning and actions in connection with the crisis in Ukraine as such. For an observer of Russian politics, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the Chinese narrative of the events in Ukraine from the official Russian narrative. The similarities are striking.
For an observer of Russian politics, it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the Chinese narrative of the events in Ukraine from the official Russian narrative.
The Chinese see the conflict in Ukraine in a longer time perspective. The historical ties between Crimea and Russia are accepted as relevant and legitimate reasons for Russia’s actions. More than anything else, the Chinese narrative on the expansionist “Western hand” reaching into Russia’s near abroad, which dovetails with Russian reasoning, shapes the Chinese perspective on events in Ukraine. It is obvious that the common Sino-Russian view on “colour revolutions”, which is a label that is also used for the Arab Spring, underpins the Chinese understanding for Russian behaviour in the Ukraine crises.
Both China and Russia have been fearful of the events which led up to the ‘colour revolutions’ in the former Soviet Union (2003-6), considering them to be greatly influenced by elements in the West. They have suspected that Western-backed interests were seeking to undermine pro-Russian regimes in the FSU in the hopes of also eroding governance in the two authoritarian states. This suspicion has grown in the wake of American-led regime change in Libya and a similar endeavour in Syria.
The Chinese view seems to be that the lack of respect for the sovereign government of Yanukovych (February 2014) is a key reason for the escalation of the crises.
On Ukraine, China specifically (though not to the same extent as Russia) has been concerned at the level of American and European influence over the events which toppled the Yanukovych government. The Chinese view seems to be that the lack of respect for the sovereign government of Yanukovych (February 2014) is a key reason for the escalation of the crises. From this perspective, the lack of respect for Ukrainian sovereignty expressed in the de facto annexation of Crimea (March 2014) is merely a response.
What China wants to see in Europe’s approach to Russia over the crises in Ukraine is therefore negotiations without any preconditions and a de-escalation of sanctions. Given Chinas understanding for the Russian position China has never supported the so-called “restrictive measures”. It would be in Chinas interest that Europe and Russia mend fences and get back to business as usual. That, however, is not going to be easy as the conflict, according to the Chinese perspective, will endure
Julie Wilhelmsen works as the Senior Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs.
Dr. Wilhelmsen attended an ECFR seminar held with the Institute of International and Strategic Studies (IISS) of Peking University on 14-15 October 2014, which was made possible by a grant from the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Beijing.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.