China is watching the developments in the Ukraine closely and what happens there may well inform her foreign policy in the future, writes Tim Robertson.
Since the Chinese Communist Party came to power they’ve stayed out of the affairs of other States, yet for many in the West they’re perceived as perhaps the biggest threat to global security. The basis for this is the country’s authoritarian and nationalist streak, which is less present than ever before, but still an undeniable feature.
A constant in Chinese foreign relations is the primacy given to national sovereignty, which, after all, forms the basis of the current geopolitical order. Yet her critics even see this as a ruse: ‘She’s only promoting the ideal of sovereignty because she doesn’t want other nations meddling in her affairs’, they say. This is usually followed up with a comment about China’s human rights record; the implication being that the West is, in comparison, the great moral exemplar. One wonders how this idea still persists after Vietnam and Iraq, but evidentially it does.
Say what you will about China’s political system, but one thing she can boast that most other countries can’t is that she is led by smartest people in the country; the leaders put their faith in reason, science and the opinions of experts. In foreign relations, this translates to a government led by realists who don’t shy away from the fact that they want what’s best for China.
And China knows better than most the dangers of idealism and, since the death of Mao Zedong, the Communist Party has been committed to ensuring utopians can’t wreck their country again. So if China doesn’t meddle in the affairs of other countries out of self-interest and cynicism, that’s okay with me.
The catch is that China’s conception of Chinese territory is often different from what the lines on the map say it is. That’s why she’s involved in territorial disputes across Asia: The general feeling within China is that these were lands stolen from her in times of weakness. The victim act that China is so fond of playing is at odds with her call to be treated as an equal of other Western powers. There’s going to come a time (if it hasn’t come already) when China can no longer get away with this.
And hawks in the U.S. would do well to be mindful of this; defending the governments decision to intervene in Iraq and Libya, or championing the case for military intervention in the Ukraine, means that in the future, when China is the largest economic and military power in the world, this same principle may be employed against American interests.
In the way that the U.S. justifies intervention on humanitarian grounds or as support for allies, the Chinese may well come up with equally fatuous reasons – in the eyes of the international community – for their interventionist policies.
The Communist Party still has a lot of domestic issues to resolve before they start exerting their military influence outside their borders, but that’s not to say they’ll be pushed around. Nor will they shy away from conflict if it eventuates, intentionally or accidentally. To do so would result in an unacceptable loss of face and strike at the core of the popular legitimacy they enjoy.
Most in the West are oblivious to the border skirmishes that took place in the east of present-day Russia between China and the Soviet Union in 1969 that, through blind luck more than anything else, almost escalated into a far more serious conflict with far wider implications.
These demarcation disputes may appear to be ‘resolved’ and ‘settled,’ but then again so to was Crimea’s status.
The next century may well play stage to a far more serious sequel to the 1969 conflict. There are large tracts of disused land in the eastern Siberian region that China feels were robbed from her in unequal treaty deals in the 18th and 19th century. And whereas the islands in the East and South China Seas have little economic value, these great swaths of land would provide relief to the swelling population of the increasingly squeezed Middle Kingdom.
For China, the referendum in Crimea was reminiscent of the humiliations she was forced to endure at the hands of the imperialists when she was weak. And China doesn’t forget these; children are indoctrinated in school and the State run media doesn’t exactly encourage an open exchange of ideas.
As the rest of the world considered the legitimacy of the Crimean referendum, many Chinese people took to the micro-blogging site Weibo to rile against Russia for having carried out a similar annexation of Tannu Tuva, a small area in the north west of Mongolia, in 1914. Incidentally, Mongolia is included in what many Chinese people believe to be stolen territory; taken from them by an interfering and impertinent Soviet Union.
These nationalist responses have become par for the course in China; she’s a country that has been conditioned to speak as a consensus, but it would be a mistake to assume it’s all for show. China, with a civilization that dates back around 8,000 years, is happy to play a long game. But she also a proud nation with a long memory and won’t be bullied.
China will be eager to see how much aggression Russia can get away with before the U.S. and her NATO allies intervene. The stakes are high; Russia isn’t Afghanistan or Iraq or Libya. China will have noted Obama’s posturing over his ‘red line’ in Syria and now, with talk of reigniting the Cold War, the United States’ commitment to fighting a proxy war in the Ukraine may be perceived as a kind of test case.
The Communist Party will be prepared to defend its territory and understands that its dominance in the region gives it a significant advantage, but what it can’t afford at this stage of its development is a conflict that draws in the U.S.
But China has scores to settle and this century might give rise to a new kind of justification for interventionism; just as many Russians deny that Crimea has ever really been Ukrainian, China may well argue that parts of eastern Siberia have never really been Russian. Or that Mongolia is not really a sovereign country. In fact, China already runs this argument; just look at Tibet.