When Chinese premier Li Keqiang holds his annual press conference today, one of the main questions he is unlikely to answer to anyone’s satisfaction is: what does China really think about Russia’s recent actions in Ukraine and Crimea?
Beijing is in a very tough spot over the issue because events that have played out over the past couple of weeks roll all the authoritarian leadership’s worst nightmares into one big nasty dumpling.
Popular uprisings are anathema to Beijing but then so is the occupation of sovereign territory by another country, especially in the name of protecting ethnic minorities and their right to self-determination – think Turkic Muslims and Tibetans in China’s western regions.
China’s responses to the crisis in Ukraine have followed the Miss Universe beauty pageant philosophy of international relations: China would like to see world peace and hopes everyone can just get along.
No matter how hard Moscow, Washington or the international press try to force it to come down on one side of the dispute, the most Beijing has been willing to say is that all sides should “remain calm and exercise restraint” and come to a “peaceful resolution”.
Meanwhile, China’s foreign minister chose his first annual press conference on Saturday as the moment to declare that Sino-Russian ties are better than ever. So what is China’s real position on the crisis in Ukraine?
Strange as it may seem for many in the west, who are used to their leaders expounding on far-flung parts of the globe they cannot always pronounce, the world’s second-largest economy and top superpower contender does not really have a stance on Ukraine, or many other issues that have hit international headlines.
As one senior strategic adviser to the government put it in a private conversation: “Russia is our friend but this is typically aggressive Russian behaviour; we’re going to lie low on this issue, wait and see how it plays out and at the end we’ll be friends with everybody.”
This may seem more like the policy countries such as Luxembourg or New Zealand might adopt towards the conflict but China is just not ready to start throwing its weight around in parts of the world that clearly lie within other people’s spheres of influence.
In contrast, in its own neighbourhood, China has explicitly moved away from its former passivity and openly describes its foreign policy as “active”.
That is obvious in everything it does these days, from the recent declaration of an “air defence identification zone” covering disputed islands in the East China Sea to its largest ever naval rescue operation under way in the search for missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.
Outside of east Asia, at least when its own interests are not directly involved, in many ways China’s position in international affairs is rather noble.
In a nutshell, China stands for non-interference, dialogue, negotiation, peaceful resolution of conflict, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity and a voice for all nations no matter their size.
Chinese diplomats argue, quite reasonably, that when foreign powers meddle in the internal conflicts of other countries they almost always make the situation worse. In the case of Ukraine, China has very little direct stake in the conflict or the outcome, certainly compared with Europe, Russia or even the US.
Apparently Beijing is waiting for delivery of a Ukrainian hovercraft, it sometimes orders jet engines from Kiev for its military, and it has invested in some agricultural projects in the country. That hardly constitutes core interests.
“In more and more instances the world wants to hear what China thinks,” one senior official told the Financial Times last week.
“But as our influence grows we are even more reluctant to take sides or make strong statements because we understand that the more important we are, the more likely our interference will complicate things and make them worse.”
这一点如今在中国的一切行为中显而易见——从不久前在东海划设覆盖争议岛屿的防空识别区，到展开有史以来规模最大的海上搜寻行动，寻找失踪的马来西亚航空公司(Malaysia Airlines) MH370航班。