The crisis in Ukraine has three potential outcomes. The first, an open military intervention by Russia in Crimea, seems increasingly unlikely; for one thing, the Russian army is already on the ground in Crimea, even if the international community mostly prefers to avert its eyes. Another possible outcome is that Crimea will hold a “Wilsonian” self-determination vote, which would place it back in the Russian fold that it left when Nikita Khrushchev signed it over to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic in 1954. This move would be more or less incontestable and is therefore very likely. In this scenario, after Crimea joined Russia, pressure would be put on other eastern regions of Ukraine. But even if a majority in eastern Ukraine favoured union with Russia, it would be tougher to engineer an electoral breakaway in the region. This would see the return of the first outcome: Russian military intervention in eastern Ukraine to “protect” Russian-leaning citizens.
The third, and least likely, solution is that a grand bargain will be struck over Ukraine. In exchange for avoiding the unavoidable in Crimea, Moscow would obtain a modern-day Finlandisation of Ukraine. This would most likely mean that Ukraine would stop at association with the European Union and give up its hopes of full membership. Guarantees would have to be made that would see Ukraine essentially becoming a neutral country, and Russia would probably engage in a certain amount of reverse arm-twisting, for example, insisting on the reintroduction of Russian as an official language. This scenario would provide long-term strategic reassurance to Russia, and would encourage ethnic and linguistic communities to stay together – which is, after all, a key EU value. But this outcome is unlikely because of the stakes involved for each party: the EU does not want to lose face; Russia fears for the future and wants to reverse the tide that it believes began in 1989; and faction-ridden Ukraine is not in a position to easily arrive at political compromise.
China is the only permanent member of the UN Security Council that could live with any one of these scenarios. In fact, China could reap a strategic benefit from almost any outcome of the crisis. Russian military intervention would precipitate a Cold War in Eastern Europe, thus making the US pivot to Asia an untenable proposition. Weakening Russia and applying sanctions would put China in a uniquely influential situation – rich, with veto rights at the UN, and accustomed to benefiting from sanction regimes to which it does not subscribe. If Crimea were to join Russia through a formal voting process, it would not be the same as secession, China’s bête noire: instead, it would be viewed as Crimea’s reunification with the motherland. More importantly, the security guarantees made by the US and UK in 1994, which were never spelled out or extended under a formal treaty, would be made to seem totally ineffective. This would act as an object lesson for other junior members of alliances with the West. A Russian military intervention in other Ukrainian regions would be a more serious issue for China. But the West will go to almost any lengths to avoid this eventuality, which means a twenty-first century version of a sphere of influence is the most likely result. And finally, Finlandisation and strategic reassurance would yield a significant defence dividend for China: it would provide a precedent for the West limiting its own reach and alliance system in the face of a big power that is neither friend nor foe.
China has begun to prepare for all these scenarios. It has offered visible support neither to Russia nor to Ukraine – although Russia was named first in the list of China’s partners given by Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi at his press conference on 9 March. China has advised against any military move and advocated for moderation and political solutions, a stance that cuts both ways, applying to the actions both of the West and of Russia. But China has stayed completely silent about the Russian military presence in Ukraine, and “political solutions” could easily be interpreted to cover a reunification of Crimea with Russia. At the same time, China does not seem ready at present to defend Russia in the UN Security Council, and it has not said a word about sanctions, although China is very opposed to sanctions in general.
Most importantly, Minister Wang Yi has suddenly ratcheted up the pressure on China’s neighbourhood in Asia. He has said: “We will never accept unreasonable demands from small countries (…) we will defend every inch of territory that is ours”. And: “On issues such as history and territory, there is no room for compromise”. Reacting to recent American statements urging China to base its territorial claims on legal grounds, Wang Yi has also reemphasised that China’s claims rely “on historical facts and international law”, in that order. This statement is as good as a guarantee that China will not submit to any International Court of Justice arbitration.
China’s assertiveness in its own neighbourhood is the real take-away from China’s position in the Ukrainian crisis. The contested maritime areas in East and South-East Asia are largely uninhabited, so the risks of a conflict breaking out are more narrowly military, and much less dependent on a frenzy of public opinion. Given the stakes that the West now has in Ukraine and on Europe’s eastern flank, China can tread even more confidently in the China Sea, while holding up the flag of “sovereignty” and “territorial integrity” – the very values that the West is seeking to defend in Ukraine.
These are, of course, gains of opportunity. But the political instability of Ukraine makes it very likely that the situation, and the mutual weakening of Russia and the West, will last for a long time. Beijing does not need to pick a winner or a loser, because it stands to benefit whoever comes out on top. The only countries that could try and impose a cost on China are the eastern members of the EU: Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, and the Baltic states. They will now get closer to the US to try to ensure their security – but are they ready to express their concerns with China? In recent years, they have acquired a Central and Eastern European Summit with China, which at present mostly serves to lobby for investment from China. Will they now use this forum to tell China what they think?
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.