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Beijing doesn't want to give up a good relationship with Russia, but it's also trying to maintain a policy of non-interference in the Crimean crisis. China could benefit from sanctions against Moscow - but at what price?
Non-interference in the affairs of other states: For decades, this has been the principle of China's foreign policy. This has meant that China keeps out of foreign conflicts, and it expects the same from other countries - Russia included.
In the case of Ukraine, this principle has become a problem as it's against China's central political interest, namely maintaining good relations with Russia.
"The Chinese-Russian relationship is currently in the best phase of our mutual history," emphasized Foreign Minister Wang Yi at a press conference at the National People's Congress earlier this month. Wang said that the countries trusted and supported each other, adding that the two presidents were connected by a deep friendship. China needs Russia - as an ally against the West.
In relation to the crisis in Crimea, there has also been criticism from those in the People's Republic who see the West as the aggressor.
"The US-led West does not want a peaceful world and is meddling in world affairs. This creates unrest," said Chen Xinming, an expert on Eastern Europe at the People's University of China, in an interview on German television. "Strategically, China and Russia need each other in order to deal with Western domination."
The feeling of being surrounded by the West, and especially the United States, is of great importance to Beijing's foreign policy, said Sven Gareis, a China expert at the University of Münster. "In Russia, China sees an important partner which it looks to for support - and, of course, it does not want to embarrass this partner," he told DW.
Is China moving away from Russia?
But Beijing also wants to maintain its principle of non-interference. No wonder, then, that China has been reluctant to weigh in on the question of the Crimean referendum. Speaking at a press conference in Beijing, Deputy Foreign Minister Baodong Li twice avoided the question of whether China will recognize the legality of the referendum and its outcome. "We hope all sides will keep a cool head and seek a political solution," he said, adding that further escalation should be avoided. He refused to comment further.
Beijing's support for its strategic partner hit a limit at the UN Security Council vote on Saturday (15.03.2014), as the council sought to declare the Crimean referendum illegal. Russia vetoed the resolution, while China chose to abstain.
Speaking off the record, Western diplomats called the move a "slap in the face" for Russia; China usually votes along with its close ally Russia. Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn, who currently chairs the Security Council, praised China's decision to reject any unilateral move by Russia to claim foreign territory, along with its call for an international coordination group.
This example, in particular, illustrates China's quandary, said Gareis. On the one hand, it did not want to give Russia a free pass in Crimea. On the other hand, China also did not want to support a resolution by the West.
China's problems with its own minorities
In addition, Beijing has its weighty domestic political issues to bear in mind. "China cannot support the referendum because we have our own problems," said Eastern Europe expert Chen Xinming. These problems are Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan, and if China lends its support to the referendum in Crimea, then why wouldn't the same rules apply for these Chinese regions which are also striving for independence?
"In this sense, it's a nightmare scenario for China: a foreign power exerting military pressure to force a referendum, causing part of the country to split off from the People's Republic," said Gareis.
Beijing as a 'laughing third party'
While Beijing continues to struggle with contradictions at the political level, possible economic sanctions by the West against Russia could work in China's favor. "Russia would increasingly turn away from Europe, and China would be the winners," said Eckhard Cordes, the chairman of the Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations for German industry associations, in an interview with newsmagazine "Focus."
China, already the largest purchaser of Russian oil, would certainly be happy with such a development - and could become the "laughing third party" in the Ukraine crisis, benefiting as the others fight. "But I don't think China will allow itself to be guided by short-term interests and hope for profit," said Gareis, adding that Beijing probably cares more about securing long-term stability in the region.
And China's economy is reliant on maintaining good relations with Western governments. For this reason, the tightrope China is walking with its Ukraine policy could become even wobblier in the coming weeks. At the end of March, China's President Xi Jinping is due to visit several Western European countries and may have to finally show his true colors.