The crisis in the Kerch Strait between Russia and Ukraine gives China a chance to portray itself as a moderate, mature superpower.
The UN Security Council held an emergency meeting on Monday to discuss escalating tensions between Russia and Ukraine following Sunday’s incident in the Kerch Strait. According to the Ukrainian Navy, Russian forces fired upon its vessels, injuring at least three sailors. Russian forces then reportedly captured three Ukrainian vessels along with 23 crew members. Moscow claims the vessels had entered Russian waters, failed to follow laid down protocols and engaged in “provocative” actions.
The Kerch Strait is a narrow body of water, which not only separates the Sea of Azov and the Black Sea but also the Russian mainland and Crimea, which Russia annexed from Ukraine in 2014. Since then, Russia has been in de facto control of the waters, a position that has been strengthened with the opening of a new bridge earlier this year. This has occurred despite a 2003 understanding with Ukraine, which acknowledged that historically the Sea of Azov and Strait of Kerch were inland waters of both countries. The joint statement between President Vladimir Putin and former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma had also guaranteed freedom of navigation for military ships and trade boats from both countries.
During Monday’s meeting in New York, Nikki Haley, the US’s UN representative, described the incident as a case of “reckless Russian escalation” and “aggression.” European Council President Donald Tusk has assured that the EU stands united behind Ukraine. In contrast, China’s deputy permanent representative to the UN Wu Haitao called for “restraint” and emphasized the Chinese approach of “objectivity and impartiality” in relation to Russia-Ukraine tensions. Wu further added that “China respects the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries including Ukraine.”
Wu’s remarks underscore the delicate balance that Beijing is seeking to strike in terms of deepening its ties with Russia while distancing itself from Putin’s foreign policy adventurism. In this context, Sunday’s incident presents Beijing with a set of pitfalls and opportunities.
The first and most obvious downside is that any escalation leading towards conflict will impact Chinese investments and infrastructure projects in Ukraine. Late last year, the two sides announced a plan to pursue joint projects in Ukraine to the tune of $7 billion, although a number of the big projects are yet to get off the mark.
Second, Beijing is likely to remain uneasy with Putin’s reliance on arguments of self-determination via referendum and military intervention as legitimate means to resolve territorial disputes and address political grievances. Given tensions in ethnic minority regions in China, Beijing is far more comfortable framing such issues in the context of historical rights supported by norms of non-interference and respect for territorial integrity and sovereignty. Wu’s remarks about respecting Ukraine’s sovereignty, therefore, must note be viewed as mere rhetoric. A normative shift towards self-determination and interventionism is deeply troubling to Beijing.
Third, given the growing Sino-Russian partnership, there is a possibility that deepening frictions between Russia and the West will further strain China’s increasingly contentious relations with the US and Europe.
Over the past few years, the Sino-Russian relationship has grown significantly. This is evident from the increasing proximity between the top leadership in both countries. Much of this is driven by a congruence of geopolitical and economic interests, which accelerated following the West’s efforts at isolating Moscow after the 2014 Crimea conflict. Both Russia and China view the international order as undergoing a shift from unipolarity – a scenario that presents certain threats along with opportunities to expand their global footprint. However, there are fundamental differences between the worldviews of Xi and Putin and the Chinese and Russian foreign policy objectives and approaches.
Putin’s ambitions seem to stem from bruised historical pride and the need to stamp Russia’s authority as a great power in the face of a deeply hostile West, which is expanding its encroachment into Moscow’s sphere of influence. This has led to the adoption of far more disruptive and risky actions, such as the annexation of Crimea in 2014 or interference in elections, exacerbating tensions with the West. In contrast, while Xi also relies on a narrative of historical greatness, he has sought to assert China’s global ambitions within the framework of a rising power assuming the role of a responsible stakeholder in the global order. Unlike its Russian counterpart, Chinese revisionism, therefore, is based on cautious incrementalism, framed within the argument for the need to redraft international norms and restructure institutions to reflect changing global realities.
This difference in worldviews, objectives and therefore approaches is not simply rhetorical; it is substantive. However, this nuance was lost when China and Russia were jointly identified as revisionist powers in the December 2017 US National Security Strategy.
Herein lies the opportunity that the Kerch Strait incident presents to China. The West’s isolation of Moscow is likely to push it deeper into Beijing’s orbit. This, in turn, allows Xi to emphasize to Europe at least — if not the US — the importance of China as a moderating influence over an irredentist Russia. In addition, it permits the opportunity to introduce and stress on the lost nuance in the conversation around authoritarian revisionism. None of this implies that Beijing will give up on its global ambitions. All it does is allow greater breathing space and opportunity to frame China’s vision as one of reform and not outright revisionism.