China backs Russia over Ukraine, but less than whole-heartedly

March 5, 2014 by Timothy Beardson

Kiev is four thousand miles from Beijing but several aspects of recent events in Crimea and the Ukraine are distinctly troubling for China.

Take the issue of agriculture. China’s has been very active in Ukraine seeking sources of grain as it seeks to increase domestic production in order to meet targets of near self-sufficiency. Ukraine, with its famously productive soils, is one of the world’s top ten grain producers and produces huge surpluses, so it is hardly surprising that deals have been struck in recent years. However, all has not gone well. A $3bn bilateral loans-for-grain deal seems to have fallen apart in February, with potential litigation amidst allegations that money from the deal was diverted to other projects and that grain deliveries were not met.

As part of its “go out” policy, China has also been active as an investor in agricultural land in Ukraine. In 2013, for example, it was announced that a Chinese state firm had acquired a piece of land in the Ukraine the size of Hong Kong and eventually the holding would rise to over 11,000 square miles – equivalent to the size of Belgium. The cost would be $2.6bn. Reportedly 14 per cent of the Ukraine is owned by foreign companies. Worldwide, foreign land purchase is becoming an increasingly controversial and sensitive issue. In this case, domestic opposition to the 50-year deal eventually led to the “seller”, KSG Agro, denying that change of land ownership was involved.

In the sphere of military relations, Chinese-Russian tensions dating back to the 1960s – and a long way back before then in relation to shared borders – are never far from the surface. And although in recent decades China has been a major customer for Russian armaments, Moscow has been cautious about the kind of technology it sells to Beijing. The best quality and most advanced equipment is simply not made available to China, although Kremlin leaders have been perfectly willing to sell this kind of advanced material to other countries such as India.

There is a strong sense in Russia that China and Russia may have common interests – usually shared antipathies – but they are not partners and are unlikely to become close friends.

Since its independence from Russia in the early 1990s, the Ukraine has been in a situation where it has been able to exercise its own foreign policy, whilst at the same time it has continued to retain much of the old Soviet military manufacturing know-how. Not being a close neighbour of China has made the Ukraine – irrespective of leader – willing to supply Beijing with advanced military products that Russia would never agree to supply itself. This has built a good relationship between Kiev and Beijing.

China has bought from Kiev an old Soviet aircraft carrier which it has studied and re-fitted to make it the first in Beijing’s fleet. From that knowledge it hopes to be capable of building two more on its own. The former Soviet aircraft carrier air training base at Novofedorivka in the Crimea was rented to the Russians. They have served notice of leaving this year and Kiev has tried to interest both India and China in taking their place.

While formally holding a policy of not having overseas bases, there is an internal debate in the Chinese military about a change of heart. Indeed, China has accepted an offer of a supply base in the Seychelles for its anti-piracy activity in the Indian Ocean. Beijing was reportedly willing to agree a deal to use the Crimean base and was patiently awaiting enabling legislation in the Ukrainian parliament.

Recent events may well have changed the situation; advanced arms manufacturing facilities in Eastern Ukraine and air training bases in Crimea may not now be so easily available to China if Russia were again to become the controlling power.

There is another aspect to Ukraine-China military relations that needs to be carefully picked apart. In December 2013 China promised to provide nuclear security guarantees to the Ukraine. It is not clear which party initiated the idea. The reality is that only one party could represent a credible nuclear threat to Kiev and that is Moscow. Indeed, as if to reinforce the point, in the middle of its occupation of the Crimea, Russia test-fired an intercontinental missile.

It is not obvious whether China merely wishes to increase its diplomatic footprint by giving guarantees to a large European country or whether there is a practical aspect to its offer. There is some ambiguity as to whether sending in Russian troops and firing an intercontinental rocket could be deemed a “nuclear threat” – although it is accepted that the test-firing had been notified in advance to Washington and other Western capitals.

With restive minority populations of its own, China is acutely aware of separatism and takes a very stern line against. Likewise, in foreign policy it is strongly supportive of maintaining existing borders. Along with most of the world. Beijing did not recognise Moscow’s annexations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia after Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008. Putin’s strategy of exacerbating ethnic and linguistic divisions in the Ukraine weakens Kiev’s authority and potentially encourages the break-up of the country. Beijing finds this wholly negative and dangerous.

On the other hand China has a shared antipathy with Russia to the idea of being encircled by states allied with the West.

Web suggestions that Ankara has been supporting jihadis among the Crimean Tartars seem overblown as Turkey has been developing closer working and trade relationships with Russia – and mindful of their own recent tragic history, the Crimean Tartars are unlikely to start a war against Russia. The nineteenth century Crimean War may have pitted the West and Moslems against the Russian empire but history does not always repeat itself.

It may be too early to fully understand the full implications for China of the tensions between Russia and Ukraine, even if it is already clear that Russia’s actions are largely negative to China’s interest. We don’t know the real purpose of China’s nuclear guarantee to Kiev and nor does the new leadership of the country look as if it is seeking to rely on any assurances given. For now, China is cautiously backing Russia, although somewhat less than whole-heartedly.

However, it remains the case that Moscow and Beijing are fighting an undeclared war for economic influence in Central Asia and that China and Russia have their own unresolved issues when it comes to borders, not least China’s latent claim from 1860 on 500,000 square miles of north-east Asia, south of the Amur Basin.

However, in the broader picture there is nothing substantial enough to indicate a breakdown of Beijing’s relationship with Moscow. China will be hoping for a reversion to as close to normality as possible in the Ukraine for it to resume the kind of independent (non-Russian) trade it has previously enjoyed.

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