China moves towards FSU leadership role

Sergei Blagov January 21, 2017 4:51 AM (UTC+8)
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MOSCOW (AT)—As China indicated interest in tackling the Ukrainian crisis, the announcement sounded as a veiled warning to Russia and the US Coupled with already strong Chinese influence in Central Asia, an increased role in Ukraine-related developments would give Beijing a stronger clout among the Former Soviet Union (FSU) states thus diminishing Russia’s influence.

Earlier this week, Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that China would be willing “to play a constructive role” in the political settlement of the Ukraine crisis, according to Xinhua. Xi made these remarks on January 17 when meeting with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in the Swiss ski resort of Davos. “We sincerely hope that Ukraine will maintain social stability and economic development,” Xi said. He also suggested that the two nations beef up coordination in international and regional affairs.

In response, Poroshenko said Ukraine-China relations are very important. Ukraine will make concerted efforts with China to expand their cooperation, he said. Poroshenko advocated “strategic partnership between Ukraine and China,” as quoted in a statement by the Ukrainian presidential press service. The Ukrainian president also voiced expectations of China’s assistance in Donbass settlement.

Donbass crisis in eastern Ukraine began in April 2014, when Kiev unsuccessfully tried to defeat Russia-backed insurgents. Then in February 2015 they signed the Minsk agreement with the mediation of France and Germany. The deal envisages a cease-fire and other measures designed to stop the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

Since 2014, China has been cautious in describing Russia’s role in Ukraine’s crisis and has refrained from attempts to mediate in Donbass conflict. However, China’s latest interest in dealing with the Ukrainian crisis and possible larger role there would signal diminished influence of other participants in Donbass negotiations: Russia, France and Germany.

There were no official reaction in Moscow following Chinese pledges to contribute to the settlement of the Ukraine crisis. But it was hardly a coincidence that on January 18, leaders of France, Germany and Russia discussed the situation in eastern Ukraine over the phone. Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Francois Hollande and German Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly voiced dissatisfaction with the implementation of the Minsk agreements. They noted deteriorating situation in Donbass, said the Kremlin press service. They agreed “to give fresh impetus” to multilateral talks on the Ukrainian crisis “in the near future,” the press service said, adding that the three leaders pointed to the importance of stepping up joint efforts to defuse tensions in southeastern Ukraine.

The phone talks between leaders of Russia, France and Germany, arranged in the immediate aftermath of China’s statement on the Ukrainian crisis, showed signs of urgency. These talks appeared to indicate concerns that China could be mulling to push European powers to the sidelines of Ukraine-related decision making.

The Ukrainian pledges to develop strategic partnership with China sounded directed against Russia. As relations between Moscow and Kiev reached the lowest point ever, it was difficult to imagine China’s equally “strategic partnership” with both Russia and Ukraine. Simultaneously, Kiev also sends a message to Washington, warning that decreased U.S. support of Ukrain could entail rapprochement with China.

This year, Russia is expected to focus on expanding its special relations with China. In late December 2016, the Russian Foreign Ministry pledged to keep prioritizing strategic partnership with China as a “key element of global and regional stability.” But if China really opts to develop “strategic partnership” with Ukraine, then Beijing relations with Moscow would inevitably become a bit less “strategic.”

Moscow now seems to face a difficult foreign policy choice: whether to accept US President-elect Donald Trump’s policies to contain China with Russia’s help, or keep opposing the West in strategic partnership with China.

China’s interest in dealing with the Ukrainian crisis appears to send a signal to Moscow: Russia’s choice to improve relations with U.S. so as counterbalance China’s rise may entail consequences, including Beijing’s partnership with Russia’s foes.

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