Last week’s three-way meeting between the Russian, Indian and Chinese foreign ministers in Beijing offered a stark lesson in diplomatic dishonesty.
With Russia still pouring arms and troops into eastern Ukraine in a bid to bully Kiev into staying in its sphere of influence, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and his Indian and Chinese counterparts pledged ‘to respect…the independent choice of development path and social system by the people of all countries.’
Coming from Moscow, such a pledge is especially disingenuous. But Beijing’s record on Russia’s violent meddling in Ukraine also reveals the hollowness of China’s core foreign policy commitments.
Scarred by the trauma of the ‘century of humiliation’ that began with the First Opium War (1839-42) and culminated in a brutal Japanese invasion and occupation (1931-45), state sovereignty and territorial integrity have been consistent preoccupations of Chinese foreign policy.
In the Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping eras, China’s strident criticism of the United States and Soviet Union’s supposed ‘great-power chauvinism’ and ‘superpower hegemony’ was a bid to delegitimise and forestall any attempts to browbeat Beijing or interfere in China’s internal affairs.
Although Deng’s policies of ‘reform and opening up’ eventually propelled China to economic riches and military might, Beijing remains hypersensitive of perceived threats to its sovereignty.
If world leaders so much as interact with the Dalai Lama or foreign officials dare to call on Beijing to respect international law, China will indignantly retort that these are unjust attempts to influence its domestic policies.
Despite regularly reminding the world of the inviolability of China’s sovereignty, Beijing remains unfazed by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s moves to dismember Ukraine.
Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014 under the fig leaf of legitimacy provided by a phony referendum, and is now in the process of slicing off a large tranche of eastern Ukraine with the help of a Russian proxy army of Ukrainian separatists.
In response to this Russian aggression—which has cost more than 5,300 lives and displaced 1.5 million civilians—Beijing has only offered limp support for a political resolution of the crisis.
Not only has Beijing failed to defend Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, but it has also provided Moscow with diplomatic and economic cover for its belligerence.
China offered tacit political support for Russia’s annexation of Crimea by abstaining from a March 2014 United Nations Security Council vote and using diplomatic weasel words to describe the Crimean crisis. For example, Beijing suggested on numerous occasions that the crisis should be viewed in light of ‘the historical facts and realistic complexity of the Ukrainian issue’—code for acknowledging Russia’s so-called ‘legitimate interests’ in Ukraine.
Meanwhile, with key North Atlantic and Asian economies levelling sanctions against Russia, Beijing delivered Moscow an economic coup by inking in May 2014 a 30-year agreement to purchase US$400 billion worth of Russian natural gas. This was followed in November 2014 by a framework agreement for a second colossal natural gas deal, which could be worth a further US$300 billion.
As well as being hypocritical, this willingness to leave Moscow at liberty to carve up Ukraine’s territory undermines Beijing’s own interests.
China’s gunboat diplomacy and uncompromising stance on its territorial claims have fuelled fears of Chinese aggression in the East and South China seas and on the Indian subcontinent. Many of China’s maritime and continental neighbours—including India, Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan—have consequently sought deeper defence ties with the United States to hedge against the risks of violent Chinese territorial aggrandisement.
With this growing prospect of a US-aligned Asia—an outcome long-feared by Beijing—China should be working hard to build trust among its neighbours.
Beijing’s unprincipled stance on the Russia-Ukraine war will do precisely the opposite. By showing that the Chinese commitments to state sovereignty and territorial integrity do not apply when they do not serve Chinese interests, Beijing will fuel doubts about the sincerity of its stated aims of ‘peacefully resolving territorial disputes’ and avoiding ‘conflict and confrontation.’
The ancient Chinese philosopher Mencius remarked: ‘Try your best to treat others as you would wish to be treated yourself.’
Beijing would do well to recall this Confucian wisdom and defend Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Failure to take such a principled stand will not just condemn the Ukrainian people to ongoing Russian aggression; it will also leave the world suspecting that China is an inconsistent and purely self-interested advocate of the right of states to conduct their own affairs free from external interference.
Dr Benjamin Herscovitch is a Beijing-based Research Fellow at The Centre for Independent Studies.