The crisis in Ukraine is putting Beijing’s policy of non-interference to the test: a global power cannot remain on the sidelines.
China’s silence regarding Ukraine would be resounding if it weren’t the norm. Yet another time, Beijing has chosen to keep a very low profile. Not only is it not interfering, but also when Beijing chooses to make it heard, it leaves only trails of noncommittal ambiguity. “We hope that the situation in Crimea will be addressed as soon as possible with pertinence and resolved with political dialogue, with respect for reasonable anxieties and the legitimate rights of involved parties.” Depending on the interpretation, it can be seen as a wise, prudent, useless, hypocritical, or Pilate-esque declaration.
China constantly evades its role, hiding behind its classic buzzwords: its borders are inviolable, no interference, and dispute resolution through diplomacy. It’s a rushed decision, incompatible with the country’s dimensions and ascent. Beijing doesn’t want to take sides, even if its position tends toward Moscow. The two countries share an excellent relationship from an economic perspective, symbolized by flows of Siberian oil that fuel the “world’s factory.” Furthermore, they agree on many political issues, especially with anti-Western tones. At the United Nations, China abstained from the referendum condemning Russia knowing that the Russian veto would have blocked it anyway. The Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, affirmed that “Sino-Russian relationships are experiencing the best period in history” in front of the parliament in Beijing. Concurrently, the PCC’s mouthpiece newspaper, The People’s Daily, ran the headline “The EU is supporting Ukraine for a price of 11 million euros.”
In any case, Chinese involvement could lead to new and dangerous approaches this time. If China aligned with Russia, it would call into question two immutable bastions of its scant foreign policy: territorial integrity and noninterference in other nations’ internal affairs. Moscow has violated both glaringly, even if it believed it did so for good reasons. According to Beijing, there are never sufficient valid motivations to question these dogmas. What would happen if the concept of self-determination were applied to Tibet, Xinjiang, or even Taiwan? Is it conceivable that an Asian Brussels would help a territory trying to secede from China? This cannot be hypothesized, Beijing would crush any threat at its inception: separatism is dangerous, inadmissible, and non-negotiable.
For China, the unrest in Ukraine demonstrates that the old framework is always more distant. Disinterest is less and less practicable, and the difference between political might and active role cannot be easily preserved. China will need to progressively assume more responsibilities, even if its history fixed its impenetrable borders at the Great Wall in two senses: where to protect itself and where not to adventure beyond. The glaring contradiction at this point is that when you grow up you can no longer hide.