The dossier of the present Ukrainian crisis is very particular and posed major problems to China. On one hand, Beijing’s foreign policy is based on principles that grant a cardinal importance to not interfering in domestic problems and observing international laws.
On the other, Beijing develops a comprehensive strategic partnership with Russia, which constantly evolved these years. A first reaction of China to the Ukrainian crisis was on 15 March 2014, in the UN Security Council, when it abstained from rejecting as void the referendum for the annexation of Crimea, which equated to a condemnation of Russia (Russia voted against it and the 13 other members of the Security Council in favour of it). Beijing is constantly very careful with the observance of the principles that lay at the basis of the current international order, because this position serves its systemic position.
Between the principle-driven consistency – condemning Russia – and abstention, which is ‘half condemnation,’ it preferred the latter, because of easily understandable reasons. Perhaps it was considered that the marginalisation of Russia could have sparked unexpected reactions of this country, it could have made it give up, rather than pave the road towards an agreement with the USA of Moscow. The geopolitical interest of Beijing is that Russia is isolated by the Euro-Atlantic community, which actually happened, once the two waves of sanctions are adopted, even though certain German circles tried to alleviate their effect, even more, they identified a way of managing the crisis that does not alienate Russia from Europe (the process of ‘round tables’ with the separatists from Eastern Ukraine, until the elections of Sunday, May 25, two such reunions being conducted under the management of a German high diplomat). At the same time, Beijing was interested – here the geopolitical calculation is in line with the economic one – that Russia itself reorients as energy provider to China, in reaction to the pressure put by Europe, so a convenient price is negotiated this way along with a constant and long-term supply of Russian gas to the Chinese economy.
On May 21, 2014, press agencies announced the signing of a fabulous contract between the two leaders of China, Xi Jinping, and Russia, Vladimir Putin, the latter visiting Beijing for a regional forum of security and cooperation. The value of this historic contract amounts to USD 400 bln and it provides that Russia will supply energy (gas) to China in the annual quantity of 38 bln cubic metres, starting 2018. The price agreed by the two sides is not known, an issue that even hampered the negotiation of this historic contract, which was settled by an agreement between the two leaders. In fact, the price is not important and it is obvious that it will modify in time, as it is doubtful that the value of such an important resource can be set one generation previously.
For a strategist like the Briton Lindley French, this China-Russia contract defined as the biggest ever only demonstrates two strategic principles of China: “First, China accepts that implicit in Russia’s use of Machopolitik in Ukraine is a new East-West Machtpolitik stand-off. Second, Russia is no equal but part of China’s growing sphere of influence.” So, according to this British strategist, for whom the construction of the hard power instrument of Europe is absolutely necessary for its affirming as a global actor, Beijing has the clear perception that a clear confrontation/blockage appeared between Russia and the West. The strategist probably bases this opinion on the fact that Russia had to accept this contract when it saw itself rejected by the West in its geopolitical demands revealed by the action in Ukraine (the federalisation of this country and the annexation of Crimea). Moreover, the British strategist believes, Russia, once it enters China’s sphere of influence, destined itself to a subordinate role.
Is Lindley French right? He has a point in his argumentation. Russia – it is affirmed – thought it necessary to abandon the West because it was in a weak strategic position, relying on Europe for 80 pc of its energy deliveries (its budget is overwhelmingly dependent from European money). Or, in the conditions of the Ukrainian crisis, the two waves of economic sanctions applied by the West already start to have effects by hitting the Russian economy, and the amplification of the subversive action in Ukraine would have sped up a third wave that can have a devastating effect. As a consequence, the decision was made to hurry up the effecting of its own ‘Asian pivot’ that will place, on one hand, Russia in a favourable position in the grand game of the 21st Century, while on the other to escape the economic pressure put by the West as effect of the events in Ukraine. At the same time, Moscow signals by signing this contract that the rupture with the West is not temporary, but structural, and this is what Russia wanted to reaffirm through its decision of developing its own blue water navy (dispatching a complex of anti-ship missiles in Crimea or the recent cruise of the aircraft carrier Kuznetsov, or the recent military drills with the Chinese fleet for testing the interoperability being proofs of this orientation). China’s perspective is different in this case. Beijing appreciates that the Russian strategy can only be regionally defensive in Asia and, in the conditions of opening own dossiers in Asia (South China Sea and East China Sea, perhaps Afghanistan etc.) “Russia is attractive as a satellite because it forces an America with a declining defence budget to look two ways at once thus complicating US strategic calculation.”