China and the Crimea Conundrum

March 11, 2014  Vincent Ten Cate

With the EU-US alliance’s imposition of heavy sanctions on Russia over its de facto annexation of Crimea, the world is now looking to Russia’s perceived long-term strategic ally China to deliver a breakthrough in the diplomatic deadlock that has emerged between Putin and the West. While many analysts were expecting China to side with Russia on account of their track record of UN Security Council veto alignment, or even because Russian expansion might set a precedent for an eventual Taiwan takeover, so far Beijing has issued a series of statements that can perhaps most aptly be described as non-committal.

Above all else, China has urged the involved parties to refrain from escalating the situation with violence, stating that “the situation in Ukraine is extremely complex” and that “an open attitude” is key to resolving the conflict. Indeed, Beijing’s diplomatic rhetoric in this unfolding crisis has been rather opaque, hinting perhaps more than anything at a desire to ‘stay out of it’ – which would altogether be an understandable wish considering the already generous amount of political turmoil on Beijing’s plate (e.g. last week’s North Korean missile launches, the Uighur knife attack, territorial tensions in SE Asia). Meanwhile, Chinese newspapers, known for their jingoist language and widely considered to be mouthpieces of the CCP, have been less subtle: according to them, the West is stuck in a “Cold War mentality”, exacerbating the situation with their threats of sanctions and overly bellicose language. Still, all things considered, China has generally kept a low profile throughout this crisis, and doesn’t seem particularly eager to abandon its position of neutrality anytime soon.

Even so, China did allegedly publicly speak out against the Russian incursion into Crimea last week, citing the necessity to respect Ukraine’s “sovereignty and territorial integrity” as the reason for doing so. This statement is concordant with Beijing’s long-term pattern of categorically opposing any political measure that oversteps national boundaries, recent examples of which are China’s UNSC vetoes against military action in the Libya and Syria crises. What the language of the Chinese statements also closely mimics, however (and what many analysts tend to overlook), is the Chinese response to the Russia-Georgia conflict of 2008, which ended in Russia declaring the pro-Russia territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia independent. In 2008, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang stated:

We have a knowledge of the complicated history and reality of the South Ossetia and Abkhazia issues. In accordance with China’s consistent and principled stance on issues of this kind, we hope the relevant parties can resolve the issue through dialogue and consultation.

Replace ‘South Ossetia and Abkhazia’ with ‘Crimea’, and this statement could have been issued just yesterday. Given their history, China’s current stance thus really shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. Still, China’s insistence that territorial integrity should be respected appears to be at considerable odds with their own claims to several territories, notably Taiwan and the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the South China Sea. Why then should we consider China’s gratuitous wilsonianisms as anything other than tu quoque fallacies? And why should China even care about what Russia does in the first place, much less imperil their strategic cooperation with the fellow communist country by explicitly voicing their displeasure?

There are any number of discernable reasons as to why China could be irked over the Crimea situation, among them not wanting to sour trade relations with the West, or even the $10 billion nuclear pact Chinese president Xi Jinping signed with Ukraine’s Yanukovich on December 5, 2013, which was part of China’s plan to establish a “nuclear umbrella” of its own. Realistically, though, trade relations with the West would probably not have suffered had China remained silent, and the ousting of Yanukovich — however convenient for Putin — was not instigated by the Kremlin. The most important reason behind China’s subtle denouncement of Putin’s move into Crimea is most likely of a wholly different nature, and can be explained by looking at Russia’s treatment of the Tatars of Crimea.

Last week, big X’s suddenly started appearing on the front doors of many Crimean Tatars, the indigenous muslim inhabitants of Crimea. The marks were left by gangs of Kremlin apologists, and they invoked a particularly nasty episode in Crimean Tatar history: in 1944, Stalin had his police force carve X’s in the doors of Crimean Tatars, after which they were promptly deported from the peninsula. This time around, the marks were left as a warning, dissuading Tatars — who, post-Stalin, constitute only a small minority on the peninsula—from voting pro-Ukraine in the upcoming referendum. The Tatars have responded in varying ways, some fleeing Crimea, while others have banded together in groups to patrol their neighborhoods. Although it is not clear whether Russian troops or rather civilians were the ones to mark the doors, Putin has done nothing to mitigate the resulting unrest among the Tatars. Instead, he has reiterated his line of protecting the ethnically Russian majority of Crimea on several occasions, exacerbating ethnic tensions and indicating that the minorities simply aren’t of particular importance to him.

But they are to China.

Much like in 2008, Putin has fashioned the narrative underlying his expansionist maneuver into Crimea on the basis of ethnicity, rather than territory. The reason why China objected to South Ossetian and Abkhazian independence then, and is objecting to Crimean independence now, is not because it doesn’t set a precedent for uncontested expansion into historical territory – it is because it sets the wrong kind of precedent. Rather than paving the way for a Chinese incursion into Taiwan, a territory to which China argues to have a historical claim, it underlines and legitimates the political cleavages between ethnicities. This runs directly counter to the CCP’s domestic policy, which has historically been to nip all claims to independence made by ethnic minorities (of which over 55 exist in China) firmly in the bud – lest China go down the same road as the Soviet Union. Beijing has been very crafty in carrying out this policy, using sanctions and even arranging mass immigrations of Han Chinese to minority-dominated areas to gradually dilute manifestations of minority culture, but the administration nonetheless regularly meets with passionate resistance. The most famous example of resistance to this policy of establishing a Chinese monoculture is perhaps Tibet, but the Uighurs – who reside in the Xinjiang area – have been even more prolific in voicing their disgruntlement, and the recent knife attack certainly shouldn’t be considered an isolated incident.

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i Map of China by ethnic distribution

A look at the above ethnic map of China immediately explains why the CCP is so determined about curbing ethnic tensions and keeping China unified: even though the ethnic minorities only make up about 9% of the Chinese population, they inhabit a large land mass of China – the most important parts of which, Tibet and Xinjiang, coincidentally have important strategic value. The Chinese are famously strapped for resources, and as it turns out, Xinjiang is home to particularly large oil, gas and mineral deposits. Xinjiang also has pipelines running through it that supply China with valuable oil, and the region provides direct access to many resource-rich neighboring countries. Tibet, on the other hand, has valuable forest and fresh water resources to supplement their mineral deposits, on which China as a whole is heavily dependent. Control of the Tibetan plateau additionally represents political leverage in South East Asia, simply because of the fact that many of the rivers that run through neighboring countries originate there.

Besides these resources, the Tibet and Xinjiang regions also represent huge geopolitical benefits. The two regions fence off China from India and the Central Asian countries, and their rugged mountain ranges provide an additional layer of protection against potential military invasions from the outside. From a trade perspective, having control over Tibet and Xinjiang means having land routes to the Persian Gulf states, which are among China’s main oil suppliers. Absent these, China would be forced to open up more circuitous avenues of sea trade, which are both more vulnerable and more costly. All in all, then, China would suffer huge losses strategically, financially and from a natural resources-POV if the Tibetans and Uighurs were to secure their independence, and it is from this perspective that we should understand China’s domestic policy: the Chinese have no option but to downplay the importance of ethnicity.

In Crimea, the Chinese recognize yet another example of a state breaking down because of a dominant ethnicity claiming independence in one of its constituent regions, and this is exactly the kind of precedent China is not willing to help set.