When Vladimir Putin lashed out at the West for its condemnation of Russia at the UN, he thanked both China and India for their “moderation”. On the eve of the UN vote, Tokyo hosted 400 Russian delegates at a joint economic conference co-organised with the Russian economy ministry. At the conference, 13 new agreements on Russian-Japanese co-operation projects were signed. South Korea has indicated its embarrassment at having to condemn Russia, and has not officially used that term.
China is more likely than other countries in the region to profit from recent events, almost regardless of what happens next. The only thing that could change matters would be a NATO rollback of the annexation of Crimea, because in that scenario, the Western-led military alliance would come out much strengthened. But it is very unlikely that this will happen.
China has indicated that it does not believe a UN-sanctioned intervention is justified, arguing that there has been no cross-border bloodshed and no military clashes between nations. Both China’s official mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, and the more strident Global Times agree that clumsy moves by the European Union and NATO have been the cause of political disorder in Ukraine. And China’s leadership is well disposed towards Russia’s efforts to regain its former position: President Xi Jinping publicly lamented in December 2012 that at the time of the break-up of the Soviet Union, “no man stood up”.
In terms of a cost-benefit analysis, China stands to gain more than it would lose from discouraging Western intervention. Already, with the construction of subway lines in Moscow potentially delayed by late delivery of Ukrainian rails, a Moscow spokesman has said “we will replace them with Chinese companies”. If the EU tries to wean itself off its dependence on Russian gas, this would increase the supply available to China (and to East Asia). If the conflict were to escalate into a regional cold war or even a hot war, which no Chinese expert has publicly contemplated, it would further undermine President Barack Obama’s rebalancing of the United States’ military assets to East Asia. There is also a downside for China: encouraging secession is inimical to China’s governance philosophy. But this negative aspect is not hugely significant.
In assessing the implications of the Ukraine crisis in Asia, it would be a mistake to look only at China’s concerns, of course. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, should be extremely worried by the spectacle of Western powers – the US and the United Kingdom – not living up to their previous pledge to maintain Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The government of Taiwan should worry as well. Discussion of the weak US response, not to mention the EU’s conflicting interests, obviously resonates in the Far East.
But Japan also needs Russia as a partner, as does Korea. For Japan, after Fukushima, Russian energy is essential, and Abe must also consider the fact that Japan will in the future be competing with China for access to Russian resources. Beyond economic interests, China’s relentless provocations in territorial disputes mean that Tokyo would like to solve its protracted island issues with at least one neighbour. It might well be able to make progress in its dispute with Russia over the four Northern Territories (or Southern Kuril Islands). South Korea, which has not found a way to leverage relations with China into a solution to the North Korean impasse, also maintains a sunshine policy towards Russia, and it dreams of its own gas pipeline to Russia. India has reaffirmed its respect for “unity and territorial integrity”, but it will subordinate all of its actions to a UN mandate that will be impossible to obtain. In India, Crimea’s secession is also viewed through the prism of Indian state Sikkim’s 1975 vote to become part of India, of India’s claim to Kashmir, and even of the West’s de facto acceptance of China’s annexation of Tibet.
The only potential game-changer in terms of China’s attitude towards Crimea would be an appeal from the 16 Central and East European countries that have set up a regional summit with China over the past two years. China professes to listen to regional views in general, and Beijing is very interested in promoting a format of meeting that could compete with EU decision-making. If these countries, having sworn that their interest was purely economic, were to take a political stand, China would sit up and listen – although it would want a political price to be paid. As for Japan, the West has shown that it wants to stay out of Japan’s sovereignty disputes, and by doing so, it has lessened its geopolitical appeal. Tokyo will likely not back its official words of condemnation with matching actions.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.