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Russian President Vladimir Putin and President of the People's Republic of China Xi Jinping shake hands at the meeting of the BRICS delegation heads, in St. Petersburg, Russia, September 5, 2013. (Igor Russak/Host Photo Agency via Getty Images)

Why China Fears the Putin Precedent

John Lee

In a visit to Japan last week for discussions with some officials in the Shinzo Abe administration, the topic of Russia’s virtual annexation of Crimea was frequently raised by my Japanese hosts. Although Japan has few interests in that part of the world, the prospect of a military power using force – or at least the threat of it – to seize control of territory claimed and administered by another country is not a worry unique to the former Soviet Union republics. As we all know, Japan has a dispute with China over areas in the East China Sea. China is also in disagreement with the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia over areas in the South China Sea, and with India in Arunachal Pradesh.

Just as the United States (and the Cold War era North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) is forced to stand by helplessly vis-à-vis Russia’s Vladimir Putin bold gambit in Eastern Europe, some in Japan fear that an increasingly assertive China could well use the ‘Putin precedent’ to forcibly seize disputed territory while America and its Asian alliance system also forged during the Cold War proves to be an inadequate deterrent and respondent. Putting aside the issue of whether America would stand by so passively in Northeast and Southeast Asia should China attempt such a move, one might wonder whether the Chinese are cheering on the ‘Putin precedent’ in Crimea. I suspect not. In reality, China is wary of any ‘Putin precedent’ and is probably just as confused as to how it should respond as is America and Western Europe – but for very different reasons.

Although talk of any ‘alliance’ between China and Russia is overstated, the two countries do often support each other in organisations such as the United Nations Security Council, where both countries have a veto. Even so, both countries do refer to each other as ‘comprehensive strategic partners’. In a UN Security Council resolution introduced in mid-March by the West and seeking to cast the planned referendum on secession of Crimea from Ukraine as illegal and illegitimate, China abstained from voting while Russia predictably exercised its veto. But rather than being indicative of Chinese support for the Russian position, Beijing’s abstention is indicative of deep discomfort with what Russia is doing.

A clue is found in China’s undeviating position on the Crimea issue: that it “has always respected the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states,” but at the same time condemns “foreign interference” which it blames for the “violent clashes on the streets of Ukraine.” Although the bit about “foreign interference” is generally directed against the policies of Western states, in this case, Beijing is also subtly directing some of its disapproval towards Moscow.

Why? Remember that Russia’s intention is to recapture its influence, and even some territory that it held during the days of the Soviet Union – the break-up of which Putin has described as the “greatest geopolitical disaster in the last century.” To do so, Putin has identified several sub-regions in the former Soviet Union with significant Russian identifying populations in around half a dozen of the republics to its west. Its invasion of Georgia in 2008 demonstrates Moscow’s modern-day blueprint: invade on the pretext of protecting Russian peoples. In the case of the Crimea, a possible ‘Putin precedent’ has gone one step further. By supporting a referendum to break away from Ukraine on behalf of the Russian peoples in that region, Moscow is effectively giving military backing to the principle of self-determination as a justification for sovereign secession – offering the Russian identifying peoples an assumed right to determine their own sovereign future.

The cherry picking and convenient use of a principle such as self-determination is a ploy to recapture Russian influence in the post-Cold War period. But self-determination is something that is anathema to Beijing. Remember that in Mao Zedong’s determination to recreate the ‘greater China’ of the Qing Dynasty Chinese forces invaded Xinjiang in 1949 and Tibet in 1950 in order to reincorporate these regions into the then newly formed People’s Republic of China or PRC. Of the one million strong military-trained People’s Armed Police whose role is to control unrest throughout the country, over two-thirds are concentrated around the Xinjiang and Tibet regions. In part, they are there to prevent any secession from the PRC under the principle of self-determination of the indigenous Uighur and Tibetan peoples respectively in those regions. Already fearing that many in the West have designs to carve up China in order to weaken it, any ‘Putin precedent’ based on principles of self-determination could be exploited by outsiders to foment what Beijing condemns as ‘splittism’ within the PRC.

Now consider Taiwan. Under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ formula, there is officially only one China. Beijing views it as its sacred mission to incorporate Taiwan back into the mainland, while America and its Asian allies will not tolerate the forcible incorporation of Taiwan by the PRC. As we all know, Taiwan now has a vibrant economy and is a thriving democracy. Taiwanese people are developing a stronger and stronger strong sense of their own national identity, even if the majority would not want to risk war with the PRC by formally declaring independence. Moreover, Taiwan is not actually governed by mainland China, has its own laws and its own military. If there were one country that might flirt with the idea of formal sovereign independence based on the principle of self-determination, it would be Taiwan.

You get the picture. If China supported a Russian-backed referendum in Crimea for the latter to secede, it would be difficult for Beijing in principle to argue against Taiwan (and perhaps Xinjiang and Tibet) wanting to do the same.

There are many in China openly supporting Putin’s defiance of the West, and America in particular. Beijing and Moscow have also arrived at a contemporary diplomatic compact to avoid criticising the policies of the other to balance against the weight of the West. But the ongoing crisis in Crimea is a difficult one for Beijing, meaning that one should not confuse China’s reluctance to condemn Russia with support for Russian aggression.

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