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Crimea, and China-Russia Relations

Paper No. 5677                                        Dated 31-Mar-2014

By Bhaskar Roy

The Crimean referendum to join Russia and subsequent action by Kremlin incorporating it into Russian territory has raised several questions on issues of territorial sovereignty and aspirations of people. Consequent to this development Russia was expelled form the G-8 and certain sanctions imposed by the US and the European Union.

The Crimean issue is complicated both in historical and strategic terms for Russia. Crimea was part of Russia and transferred by the Soviet Union to its Ukrainian province in 1954 by Nikita Khruschev, who came from that region. The basic fact is that it remained within the Soviet Union and the Soviet leaders had not foreseen their empire’s disintegration. Crimeans are overwhelmingly Russian speaking and decided to break away from Ukraine because they are feeling alienated and discriminated against. 

On the strategic side, Russian President Vladimir Putin saw that Ukrainian politics was increasingly being infiltrated by the US and the west, and Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Yanukovic was ousted by a movement covertly engineered by the US and the West. NATO’s eastward move to encircle Russia was noticed since the break up of the Soviet Union. At that time Russia had become very weak, led by leaders like Gorbachev and Yeltsin who decided to give in to the west. Putin, a tough KGB ex-colonel thought otherwise.  He may be accused of grinding democracy under his heel and running a draconian regime, but Putin is also being applauded at home for rejuvenating Russian pride, turning around the economy to a great extent and rebuilding its powerful military. In this context, Moscow has regained a very important naval base in the Black Sea region in Western Europe.

How the Crimean action plays out in the immediate future would have implications for international order and behavior. The Crimean decision appears to be irreversible at the moment. The questions facing the international community are: (i) can a people with their historically owned land be forced to remain under an alien dispensation against their will, and (ii) can a nation demand return of its legal territory from foreign occupation? (legality must be proved concretely and not just claimed by historical concoction).


In this context, China-Russia relations and China’s territorial claims stand out large as they are of current context. China’s assertive territorial claims backed by periodic military show are a cause for regional and international concern.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang described relations with Russia as the best ever during the National People’s Congress in March. Both Russia and China have inter-dependability but each also has its own priorities. The Chinese propaganda machinery has been working overtime to advertise their bilateral relations. President Xi Jinping at the opening ceremony of the Sochi winter games was seen standing with President Putin against western criticism. At the same time as mentioned above, their differences or independent political positions may not make for an “all weather” friendship.

An article in the pro-China Hong Kong daily the Ta Kung Pao (Feb.8) reported that at a secret meeting between China and Russia on February 06, China offered to support Russia’s claim on the South Kuril Islands claimed by Japan if Russia recognized China’s sovereignty over islands in the East China Sea, including the Diaoyu (Senkaku in Japanese) islands. Russia declined, and directions went out to the official media from the Chinese state council information office to black out the report and other news and comments connected with it.


China sought such an assurance from the US on the disputed islands of the South China Sea, but US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had declined. If China approached Russia’s support for its claims in the South China Sea, trends suggest that it would be declined. President Putin has given a new impetus to Russia’s policies in the Asia Pacific region and what according to a new terminology is the Indo-Pacific stretch. Vietnam has been a traditional ally of Russia and that relationship is being strengthened. New Russian initiatives have been taken toward Sri Lanka where China has emerged as a leading player.     

China, however, would be aware of Russia’s readjustment of relations with Japan. During a meeting with Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe (Feb.8) Vladimir Putin said Russia-Japanese relations had options to settle complex issues (read territorial dispute). Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov also told a Japanese correspondent that the South Kuril issue was not being seen as a territorial dispute.

Putin’s vision is clear. Russia’s oil and gas exports in the region cannot be left hostage to China. Japan, an energy importing country will benefit from Russian resources, and plough back technology. There are many other areas where Russia and Japan can cooperate, and both are examining the possibility of signing a peace treaty. No doubt these developments will influence Russia-China relations, and may even impact Chinese decision making on the Crimean issue, keeping in mind Chinese territorial claims.

China abstained from voting on an UN Security Council draft resolution seeking to condemn the Crimean referendum to join Russia. Moscow, of course, vetoed the resolution. It was a difficult decision for China. The abstention would have demonstrated China’s neutrality and respect for Ukraine’s territorial integrity. But it was also interpreted by some sections in China as tacit recognition of Russia’s intervention in internal matters of Ukraine and annexation of Ukrainian territory.

The Crimean issue has left the Chinese leadership in a dilemma on how to respond. Diplomatically, relationship with Russia may have been hit a little, though President Putin is unlikely to show any such signs now. Putin requires support, and if that does not come, then neutrality at least.

There are more concerns for China internally. According to a report, the central propaganda department of the communist party of China issued (March 17) a directive to all media organizations to refrain from highlighting the Crimean referendum, not connect Taiwan, Tibet or Xinjiang to the issue, and not comment without authorization on the foreign ministry’s position on and handling of the Crimean issue.

While Chinese media have strictly abided by the official directives, Chinese netizens have been raising a variety of questions on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of twitter.

Some netizens have raised questions on China’s own position recognizing Crimea’s separation from Ukraine, asking why Beijing opposes Xinjiang, Taiwan and Tibetan independence?

 The editor-in-chief of the nationalist daily, Global Times, Hu Xijin came out strongly reprimanding doubters with words like “China is never wrong”, and “in this world, to a great degree, truth follows power”. Hu conveyed the views of Chinese hardliners in a nut shell: China has the power to prevent Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang from seceding, and power determines truth. Hu Xijin is an influential editor.

The Crimean incident is being officially debated in China and the official Chinese media. Basically, the actions are seen as Putin’s or a kind of Putin doctrine for the revival of Russia. Crimea’s reunion with Russia is seen as the beginning of a new game between Russia, the United States and Europe. The EU may not always be on the same page with the US, thus making hard sanctions on Russia difficult.

Russian resurgence is also seen as a development that can reduce US pressure on China. Putin’s determined step to protect Russia’s “core” interest also gives China an argument to use military power to exercise sovereignty over the East China Sea and South China Sea islands claimed by it. But rise of Russia also brings back the thought of Tsarist Russia which dominated its Asian neighbours and pressed unequal treaties on China. This, however, is unlikely because China itself is a powerful country now.

The worst scenario for China is how separatists like the Tibetans, Uighurs in Xinjiang and the pro-independence group like the DPP in Taiwan draw inspiration from the Crimean independence from Ukraine. Minority challenges have risen in China in recent years.

(The writer is a New Delhi based strategic analyst.  He can be reached at e-mail