The China Factor in the Battle for Crimea

By Jacqueline Vitello

Protester in Kiev, Ukraine. Russian forces seizure of Crimea places unique pressure on China's leaders who are torn between principles of non-interference and territorial integrity. Source: Snamess's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Protester in Kiev, Ukraine. Russian forces seizure of Crimea places unique pressure on China’s leaders who are torn between principles of non-interference and territorial integrity. Source: Snamess’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

As the United States attempts to persuade China to join the West in the fight for Ukraine’s future, China continues to do what China does best: hedge its bets. Beijing has made few significant statements on the crisis in Ukraine other than for a peaceful, diplomatic solution, and to urge respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The recent Russian incursion into Ukrainian territory clearly goes against China’s long-standing principle of noninterference, and additionally violates UN resolution 3314. Why then, will China not stand against Moscow?

There are lots of theories floating around as to why China might back Russia, many of them involving Taiwan. Russia sees the autonomous region of Crimea as a historical part of Russian territory. The fact that 58 percent of the population in Crimea is made up of ethnic Russians does not hurt their claim. There are definite parallels between Russia’s stake in the Crimean peninsula and China’s claims to Taiwan. Many postulate that if Russia can assume control over Crimea efficiently and without much bloodshed, it will set a precedent for modern-day territorial expansion (i.e. a Chinese takeover of Taiwan and/or islands in the South and East China Seas).

Indeed, since a pro-Russian militia seized control of Crimea two weeks ago, they have already forced a referendum, to be held on Sunday, March 16, which will decide whether Crimea should remain a part of Ukraine or be ceded to Russia. Recent polls taken in Crimea show Russia with a distinct advantage in the upcoming vote. On the surface, this seems to be the ultimate Chinese dream – Taiwan holding a referendum, in which the people vote to return to the motherland. It fully incorporates Taiwan’s democratic principles, and the international community could hardly complain about such an outcome.

To China’s leaders, however, allowing the people of Taiwan, which the Chinese see as a part of their sovereign territory, to vote on whether they want to be a part of China would be extremely dangerous. To allow Taiwan a referendum on their allegiance would be tantamount to admitting that Taiwan has the right of self-determination. Moreover, there would be great risk involved.  Even though approximately 85% of the people living in Taiwan trace their family roots to the mainland, it is highly unlikely that the Taiwan people would vote for reunification. The circumstances in Taiwan are very different than those in Ukraine. While Taiwan has its fair share of debates concerning cross-strait relations, both independence and reunification with the mainland are all but off the table. In February 2013, a mere 2 percent of the population in Taiwan supported reunification with China. Another key difference between Crimea and Taiwan is that the unrest that sparked the instability in Ukraine, which provided Russia with a pretext to intervene, is unlikely to take place in Taiwan. To be sure, large-scale protests take place occasionally on Taiwan, but they are conducted peacefully; Taiwan is a stable and mature democracy.

China is therefore making a self-serving political decision not to take sides. It cannot embrace the Russian position, for fear of future consequences on Taiwan, but it does not want to side with the West either. If, as some suggest, the upcoming referendum in Ukraine proves to be precedent setting, it will not likely be a precedent that China follows. The future of cross-strait relations will be determined by developing circumstances in China and Taiwan, as well as in the cross-strait relationship, and not by loosely analogous international struggles.

Ms. Jacqueline Vitello is a Research Associate and Program Coordinator with the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS.


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