Ukraine crisis: Why China is keeping mum

March 6, 2014, 1:05 AM UTC
China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin

FORTUNE — For now, Russian president Vladimir Putin has elected not to escalate tensions with the West over Ukraine, giving some hope for a peaceful solution to the political crisis in Kiev.

Until he blinked on March 4, Putin had been engaged in a game of chicken with the West, threatening to use military force to restore the ousted former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. There are many reasons why Putin chose not to test the will of the West for now. One of them is Russia’s near-total isolation — Putin’s brinksmanship has received no endorsement from his friends or allies.

In particular, Russia must be sorely disappointed by China’s lack of support. Since the crisis began in late February, China has hedged its bets cautiously. In vaguely worded official statements, Beijing has not taken sides in this fight. Instead of backing Russia’s actions, China merely expressed its wishes that the crisis be resolved peacefully. In a phone call with Vladimir Putin on March 4, Chinese president Xi Jinping said nothing that could be construed as support for Putin.

Putin’s decisions have likely been shaped by potential retaliation from the West and the likely disastrous consequences of military operations in Ukraine, but international isolation could also have persuaded him, on the margins, to rein in his recklessness. In the case of China, one could argue that Putin might have been emboldened had he received an explicit, strong endorsement from Xi.

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China’s reluctance to take a side stems from a professed principle of “non-interference” in the domestic affairs of other sovereign nations. With its poor human rights record and growing ethnic unrest, Beijing has consistently rebuffed external criticism by evoking this principle. China would be foolish to change its long-held position to please Russia.

To be sure, ideologically, Beijing is on Moscow’s side. The ruling Chinese Communist Party views democracy with fear and hostility. In its coverage of the Ukrainian crisis, the official Chinese media has displayed a predictable bias against the pro-democracy forces. The official statements issued by the Chinese government also imply that the West is responsible for fomenting revolution in Kiev.

China and Russia have formed a so-called strategic partnership. On the international stage, especially at the United Nations Security Council, where both nations have veto power, the two countries frequently take similar positions. For example, on Iran and Syria, Russia and China have consistently opposed Western nations’ policies.

While its anti-democratic instincts and its partnership with Russia should incline the Chinese government to come to Putin’s aid, Beijing is ultimately run by pragmatists who believe they are likely to lose more by taking an explicit pro-Russia stance.

Aside from their rhetorical commitment to “non-interference” — which in reality is more of a diplomatic fig leaf (since China has often honored this principle in breach) — Chinese leaders are focused on geopolitical concerns and economic interests when it comes to Ukraine.

Xi and his colleagues understand that they would pay a huge price for joining Russia in confronting the West in this case. China has no wish to antagonize the United States needlessly in a dangerous situation in which it has no real geopolitical interest. And Beijing knows that Washington could make it pay dearly by giving more support to Japan in the ongoing Sino-Japanese territorial disputes.

Furthermore, to the Chinese, Putin has been an untrustworthy partner, who has played geopolitical hardball with Beijing since he came to power in 2000. He has restricted Russian exports of advanced weapons to China (while selling such material to Vietnam and India). Russia also failed to deliver on its promise of providing China with more energy resources.

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China would also stand to lose a great deal if it placed a very public bet on Russia and the Yanukovych regime that went sour. Even though Chinese trade with Ukraine is a modest $10 billion a year, it has ambitious plans to make huge investments in Ukraine’s energy, infrastructure, and agricultural sectors. In 2013, the China Development Bank made a loan of $3.7 billion to the Ukrainian ministry of energy, and another Chinese state entity signed an agreement with the Ukrainian State Food and Grain Corp. to invest $2.6 billion in the agricultural sector. During Yanukovych’s visit to Beijing in December 2013, the two countries signed more than 20 contracts and memoranda worth over $30 billion.

These investments and future business opportunities would be at risk should the West-backed interim government in Kiev prevail in this crisis. For Beijing, the most prudent policy on the crisis in Ukraine is to sit on the fence and let the dust settle.

Minxin Pei is the Tom and Margot Pritzker ’72 Professor of Government and a non-resident senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States