Sticking to its traditional policy of non-interference, China has adopted a cautious stance on the tug of war over Ukraine. Faced with pressing separatist threats and energy needs, Central Asia would be another matter.
The puzzling crisis that is gripping Ukraine, with Russia annexing the Crimean peninsula after the shift of power in Kiev from the Moscow-leaning government of ousted president Victor Yanukovych to a Western-backed leadership, could lead to a misalignment of interests between the Kremlin and Beijing - something new when it comes to geopolitical competition that sees the Russian President Vladimir Putin face off with the United States and European Union (EU).
Over the past decade, China and Russia have often joined hands in torpedoing Western initiatives regarding a wide range of armed conflicts and international crises, not least vetoing several United Nations Security Council resolutions against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad and "rogue" states such as Iran, Sudan, Myanmar and North Korea.
The Chinese leadership has repeatedly stated that it will not interfere in Ukraine's domestic affairs and has called for dialogue to resolve the ongoing dispute. In this regard, it has put forward a proposal to create an international coordination mechanism committed to favoring a political way forward and has urged the international financial bodies to facilitate Kiev's economic recovery.
"China and Russia have often joined hands in torpedoing Western initiatives regarding a wide range of armed conflicts and international crises"
Looking at the fresh redrawing of maps in the Black Sea region, Beijing is wary of both defusing separatist appetites at home and protecting its business abroad (notably in its near abroad). Its abstention from the March 15 UN Security Council vote on a US-sponsored draft resolution condemning the breakaway referendum in Crimea, which Russia promptly vetoed, should be read in this perspective.
Chinese President Xi Jinping needs to contain the domestic fallout from any possible Russian blitzkrieg threatening further Kiev's independence and territorial integrity - after Crimea, Putin could target the mostly Russophone Eastern and Southern Ukraine.
Much as it did in Georgia in 2008 and in Moldova earlier in the 1990s, the separatist card that Russia has been playing in Crimea, where roughly 60 percent of population is ethnically Russian, could trigger unease in China, whose rulers consider the breakaway feelings going through the Chinese autonomous regions of Tibet and Xinjiang as the most dangerous challenge to the country's internal stability and security. Not to mention the prospect that Taiwan, a rebel province in Beijing's view, holds a referendum on (de jure) independence from the mainland in the future.
Crimean separatism, coupled with Russia's mounting interventionism, undermines the stability of Ukraine, which is also grappling with economic and financial hardships. China is Ukraine's third-largest commercial partner after the European Union and Russia. Total trade in goods between the two countries was worth more than 8 billion USD in 2012, according to data from Eurostat and the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The Middle Kingdom is the biggest buyer of Ukrainian weapons. Kiev exported 690 million USD in arms and equipment to China only in 2012, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), and it is worth noting that the first aircraft carrier of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), Liaoning, is in reality a refurbished Ukrainian vessel.
Beijing has bolstered an agricultural cooperation with Kiev over the past few years. Last fall, news that China's Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps had leased in June 2013 three million hectares of Ukrainian farmland for Chinese consumers attracted great attention. Later, Ukrainian authorities downplayed the case, denying any land grab and talking about a 2.8 billion USD agreement concerning Chinese assistance in the realm of irrigation technology.
In another respect, Wang Jing, the Chinese billionaire planning to build up an inter-oceanic waterway through Nicaragua, would be ready to spend 10 billion USD in a deepwater harbor and an economic zone in Crimea, Bloomberg News reported late in 2013.
In 2012, the Export-Import Bank of China granted a 3-billion-dollar loan to Ukraine in return for supplies of grain. Voices are growing that China is seeking compensation from Kiev for the breach of this deal, but Chinese officials have denied that they are contemplating any such move. On the other hand, the Chinese government has never confirmed the signing of a new credit agreement worth 8 billion dollars with the Ukrainian counterpart following a meeting in Beijing between Xi Jinping and Yanukovych back in December 2013.
Keeping a low profile
As usual in disputes far away from its regional perimeter of projection, China will maintain a low profile. It recognizes that there is too much power at stake in Ukraine, where the Euro-Atlantic and Russian spheres of influence collide, for it can go beyond nudging the Western bloc and Russia into accepting a compromise over the current spat.
Ukraine is quite different from Sudan and South Sudan, where sizable Chinese oil interests are matched by a well-established political clout, and this to such an extent that Beijing has partly given up its long-standing policy of non-interference in other nations' internal affairs to resolve civil and border conflicts plaguing these two eastern African countries.
"Beijing has partly given up its long-standing policy of non-interference in other nations' internal affairs"
From China's viewpoint, Kiev is also nowhere near as strategic as the "stans" at its doorstep. While it can be safely assumed that Beijing abhors any form of regime change, not least if it is a Western-backed one, it is equally true that it cannot turn a blind eye to a Kremlin claiming a power of guardianship of sorts in the post-Soviet space, regardless of their common membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO).
Much as in Crimea, Russia has military bases and troops dispatched in Central Asia, where former Soviet republics look to China for their economic development just like Ukraine turns to Europe for its political destiny, and where Beijing is advancing energy projects to reduce its oil and gas dependence on the Middle East in perennial turmoil.
If mass uprisings were to break out in these turbulent Central Asian nations, ruled by old autocrats and therefore structurally ill-suited to manage smooth political successions, Beijing could find itself in the same position as Europe is today in Ukraine, faced with the Russian bear justifying an armed intervention to defend its interests and citizens, as well as the lives of ethnic Russians, across this region.
Such a scenario ultimately amounts to a responsibility to protect in "Russian guise" that China would find indeed uncomfortable, if for no other reason than it would entail Moscow's enhanced leverage on countries providing Beijing with over half of its gas imports.
Emanuele Scimia is a journalist and geopolitical analyst based in Italy.