Page 1 of 2 China still on-side with Russia
By Yu Bin
Sino-Russian relations have been under intense scrutiny lately because of the
Georgian-Russian conflict over the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia.
For many in the West, China's cautious "neutrality" is a departure from, if not
a betrayal of, its strategic partnership with Russia.
Such a view, among others, misreads the state of the Sino-Russian relationship
without an adequate understanding of its depth, breadth and complexity. As a
result, the Western perception of Beijing-Moscow ties has swung from one of
threat against the West prior to the South Ossetia crisis to the current
premature celebration of its obituary.
Neither is right. Both look at the superficiality while ignoring the
substance. With the looming confrontation between Washington and Moscow over
South Ossetia, the West itself seems to be getting lost in its tireless effort
to renew the "Western civil war", which was said to have ended in 1991 when the
Soviet Union collapsed.
South Ossetia and China's 'strategic ambiguity'
In the early morning of August 8, 2008, when President Dmitry Medvedev was on
vacation and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was in Beijing attending the Summer
Olympics Games, Georgia launched a military offensive to surround and capture
Tskhinvali, the capital of South Ossetia.
Putin, who was in Beijing prior to the Olympics opening ceremony, immediately
informed the Chinese side in his meeting with Premier Wen Jiabao on August 8.
China's reaction to Georgia's assault, according to Putin, was that "nobody
needs the war", which was also US President George W Bush's reaction.
Meanwhile, China expressed serious concern over the escalated tensions and
armed conflict in South Ossetia, and urged both sides to exercise restraint,
cease fire immediately and resolve their dispute peacefully through dialogue.
In a way, Beijing did not publicly and explicitly support Moscow.
China's "strategic ambiguity", if not neutrality, regarding the Georgia-Russian
conflict has been the focus of the media and pundits. Many tend to highlight
the differences and conflicts of interest between China and Russia. China's
move is seen as an effort to maximize its interests while Russia is going
through difficult times with the West. China's own Taiwan problem is perhaps
one major reason that China cannot publicly support Russia over this issue.
Most Central Asian states are also said to have reservations regarding Russia's
policy, due to the large number of ethnic Russians living in this "near abroad"
area and their "cautious neutrality" also shows the growing influence of China
in this traditional sphere of influence of the Russians.
These apparent differences between Russia and its Shanghai Cooperation
Organization (SCO) partners - China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and
Uzbekistan - are indications of the fragility of this regional security group,
and many of its members simply dream different dreams while sleeping on the
same bed with Moscow. Last if not least, Georgia lost no time in thanking China
for not taking sides.
These assessments, among others, may make some sense. There is, nonetheless a
discernible switch in the West from exaggerating the strength, or threat, of
the Sino-Russian strategic partnership to one of overplaying their differences,
deliberately or not.
Both views are rooted in a misperception of the Beijing-Moscow strategic
partnership, which essentially means a normal relationship. It is the result of
a long and sometimes painful learning experience in the second half of the 20th
century - in which relations between Moscow and Beijing oscillated between
excessive dependence (particularly China on Russia) and almost zero
What is essential for today's Russian-China relationship is the absence of the
ideological factors and border disputes that constantly besieged the two
nations up to the early 1990s. On the operational level, it means that the two
sides attach great importance to bilateral ties and share a strong willingness
to commit to their enhancement. At the operational and functional level, it is
largely a pragmatic approach "to conduct strategic coordination without
alliance and close relationship without excessive dependence". Moreover, there
is a willingness to develop the more cooperative aspects of their relationship
while managing those of disagreement and competition.
It is within this context of normal relationship, not one of alliance, that
China reacts to the Georgian-Russian conflict.
'West's civil war' again? Stupid
In a broader sense, China’s “harmonious world” means stability of the existing
international system, despite the fact that it is dominated by the West.
Indeed, China would like to see, as much as the West would, the stability and
continuity of the existing international system, from which China has benefited
The Georgian-Russian conflict is in essence between Russia and the U.S. While
finger pointing was hurled between Moscow, Washington, and Tbilisi regarding
who made the first move, it is inconceivable that a small Georgia would dare to
take on its giant neighbor without explicit support from Washington.
Indeed, Washington was not only aware of Georgian military actions before they
started, it also explicitly sided with Tbilisi for the August surprise. In July
2008, two U.S. policies clearly emboldened Tibilis. U.S. Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice traveled first to Prague, where a treaty on the placement of
radar was signed, and then to Tbilisi, where she precisely and unequivocally
sided with Georgia in its conflicts with Russia. U.S. policies prior to the
August conflict may have contributed to Saakashvili’s recklessness and
miscalculation. Whether the world is heading back to the Cold War or pre-World
War I setting, the ghost of “Western Civil War,” which was claimed to have come
to an end with the collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991, is being
rekindled by the Georgian/U.S.-Russian conflict.
At the time of the Georgia-Russian crisis, China’s periphery has also become
quite “fluid”: Musharraf’s resignation as Pakistani president; violent
demonstrations in Thailand; the sudden exit of Japanese Prime Minister Fukuda,
and the prospect of Mr. Aso, now Secretary General of the governing Liberal
Democratic Party and a hardliner toward China and Asia, as the next prime
minister. Given this specter of a possible general instability of the
international system, Beijing’s cautious approach is perhaps quite natural.
Beijing's public "neutrality" toward the Georgia-Russian conflict, however,
should not be a surprise in that it has been the pattern in China's diplomacy
since the 1980s. In almost all cases ranging from international crises (Korean
Peninsula, Iran, Kashmir, etc) to bilateral disputes (the South China Sea with
the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, the East China Sea with Japan,
border settlements with Russia, Vietnam, India - in progress- etc), China has
opted for dialogue and compromise, rather than confrontation or side-taking.
The same operational principle has applied to difficult issues such as Hong
Kong and Taiwan. (China negotiated with Britain for the ending of colonialism
in Hong Kong in the 1980s. In contrast, India, which is a democracy, used force
to take back Goa from Portugal in December 1961).
Aside from this predictable pattern of China's approach to conflict and
disputes, the timing of the conflict was also an irritant for Beijing. China
did not want any conflict at the historical moment of hosting the Olympics,
whether Russia was part of the conflict or not. Given the complexities of the
ethnic conflicts dating back to the 1920s, its evolving nature and the US
looming large in the background, China's cautious reaction was expected, if not
desirable for Moscow.
China back to its past, for the future
Last if not least, what China did was perhaps rational within the context of
its strategic partnership relations with Russia. It is perhaps what Russia
would do in a scenario of PRC-USA conflict over Taiwan. That is, Russia would
more likely to remain neutral though expressing sympathy for China. This was
exactly what Moscow did in 2001 when a U.S. spy plane (EP-3) collided with a
Chinese jet fighter (J-8II) off China’s coast, leading to a major crisis
between China and the U.S.
Even if the Russians did not get all of what they wanted from China and the SCO
summit in late August, this is by no means the beginning of the end of their
strategic partnership. Over the past 30 years, China’s diplomacy, particularly
its relations with Russia, has become far more sophisticated, nuanced, measured
and matured. Seldom does China now judge others along the friend-foe line but
along a more pragmatic, independent, and case-by-case approach. Even with its
allies such as North Korea, China will be critical of its neighbor’s policy if
it is destabilizing.
To a large extent, China’s foreign policy has gone back to its deeper
philosophical underpinnings of “unity/harmony with or without uniformity” (he
er bu tong). This also one of the psychological anchors for the Sino-Russian
strategic partnership relations after the two rather extreme types of
relationship of “honeymoon” (1950s) and “divorce” (1960s and 1970s) between
Beijing and Moscow. Western perceptions and expectations that Beijing and
Moscow are heading toward some sort of “separation” is, therefore, an
overstatement at best. It is also largely derived from the West’s own
experience and practice, which insists on unity because of (or by, of, and for)
uniformity. Hence, NATO members must be democracies and the EU must be
European, Christian, and perhaps white. Applying the same “recipe” to the SCO
and recent Sino-Russian relations, which have largely transcended the past
practice of alliances, may lead to nowhere.
SCO sounds no SOS
During the SCO's annual regular summit on August 28, in Dushanbe, Tajikistan,
Medvedev briefed the SCO heads of state on the Georgian-Russian conflict and
Russian policies. The Dushanbe Declaration does support Moscow's six principles
of settling the conflict in South Ossetia and supports Russia's "active role"
in promoting peace and cooperation in the region. The wording of its call for
peaceful negotiations of the conflict, however, is vague and general at best.
The reason for the SCO's "neutrality" is both complicated and simple,
complicated in that all of the SCO's Central Asian states were former Soviet
republics. Many, if not all, of them do not want to see any replay of the
Georgian-Russian conflict in their part of the world. That concern of the
Central Asian states, however, remains a distant possibility, given that the
SCO provides a framework for its members to resolve disputes and to achieve
common purposes of security and development.
The key to the SCO's stance, however, lies in the nature and