China on Ukraine’s sovereignity, making sense out of contradictions

On 15 March, Chinese PM Li Keqiang made some remarks on China’s position on the issue of Ukraine and Crimea. In short: China respects Ukraine’s sovereignity and territorial integrity but takes no position on the status of Crimea. Li told this in a news conference at the end of the annual meeting of parliament.

“On the issue of Ukraine, China has adopted an objective and just position. We respect Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity, at the same time, the Ukraine issue has added to the complexity of the geopolitical situation and has affected the process of the global economic recovery. We still hope that this issue can be resolved via dialogue, negotiations and consultations.”

When asked about China’s position on ‘who owns Crimea?’, Li said: “As for Crimea, there are complicated contributing factors. We also hope that it can be resolved politically via dialogue and hope that neighbours can peacefully coexist.” (Reuters, 15 March)

// framing & comment

1. Clear text. The Chinese keep their options open. ‘Dear friends, this is not our business, but we don’t like what’s going on since it hurts economy and international security.’ Hardly anybody would have expected something different. It’s rather worth mentioning that such a statement on Crimea has been made since it exposes the contradictory features of China’s position (respecting Ukraine’s territorial integrity while having no position on the status of annexed Crimea).

2. The words of this statement and its placement were chosen carefully. Li is standing in the shadow of the active President Xi Jinping. Giving Li the show to confirm (by the way) China’s position on such a contentious issue might revalue his internal position while signaling that he is the man in charge for Ukraine. At the same time it signals that the issue is has not highest priority for China. (At least not relevant in respect of the elite’s political survival.)

3. The ‘complexity of the geopolitical situation’. On one hand there are the cases of Tibet, Taiwan, the Xinjiang region, territorial disputes with India and in the South China Sea. Chinese officials repeat since decades the ‘policy of non-interference’ in domestic issues of other states and cooperation among equals. There are limitations in the application of those principles, especially in places which China considers as her zone of influence. China’s policy is that those cases are rather internal or bilateral issues and other states are not welcomed to interfere. Therefore, the statement on Ukraine’s sovereignity was once more a opportunity to communicate those principles…

4. … and to remind of its implications. Specifically, if US doesn’t play by Chinese rules in the Pacific and if Russia doesn’t accepts it’s role as junior partner in the Russian-Chinese cooperation, then China can take any side and change the Ukrainian outcome significantly. The more the conflict gets out of control, the higher the leverage. But this doesn’t fully explain the statement on the status of Crimea.

5. Crimea. The no-position on ‘who owns Crimea’ doesn’t offend the EU too much (or maybe pleases Germany) and could even be framed as a balanced and constructive compromise. Considering the domestic and economic situation, China cannot afford risking the European market. Neither can China bend its geopolitical principles too much. Next to China bullying its neighbours, Russia, Western states and alliances intervened under controversial circumstances (or questionable legitimacy) in various zones of their interests. Specifically after the UN resolution on Libya and its application, China might rather rely on it’s own set of rules (SCO) than on a international security framework. In this respect, the statement on Crimea might be framed in a way that ‘China accepts Russia taking care of its neighbourhood’. (“Chinese officials have said that Western powers should take into consideration Russia’s legitimate security concerns over Ukraine.”)

6. Despite the increasing economic cooperation, the partnership between Russia and China has limitations. The non-condemnation of the operation in Crimea should not be considered as an act of friendship towards Russia. It rather reflects the deterioration of the international security network. The flexible handling of international law of the past created precedents and regulatory gaps. China takes relative advantage of the crisis and consolidates its geopolitical position. That’s legit.

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4 Responses
  1. As the United States demilitarizes its foreign policy under the Obama Doctrine soft power rubric, it is creating an IR power vacuum which will, of course, be filled. De facto allies, China will passively kowtow to Putin in as far as it is not seen as such. The Shanghai Cooperation Council operates most effectively in stealth mode and must acknowledge efforts to reconstruct FSU space aka the Russian Near Abroad. China is doing the same in the South China Seas by re-acquiring ( or appropriating the Spratley Islands while creating of its first blue water navy to challenge the old American Lake regime. See post by Dr. Terry Simmons (pending) The Paradox of American Power on


      Power vacuums will be filled, no doubt. Some notes on your article, wasn’t able to reply on your site.

      – Decreasing US military hegemony is rather the result of emerging new countries than US weakness. Military (spending) has changed in order to adopt to geopolitical realities and innovation in warfare. I don’t know that much about US domestic politics but I doubt that a president has that much influence on long term strategic decisions. I think it was his choice how the retreat takes place, not if.

      – Probably you are familiar with Hirshleifer’s ‘Paradox of Power’… his asymmetries in the power balances along economic and military dimensions. The paradox of American power you have mentioned, seems to me the result of asymmetries. It’s a matter of methodology along which categories those asymmetries are perceived.

      – I think the Americans aren’t aware of their most valuable strategic asset. Geography. You have a continent of your own, easy to defend, Canada is your buddy, there are partners all over the world, you have still some leverage via IGOs not speaking of finance. Compare this situation with other nations. Even if other nations emerge… let’s put it like this: If the US isn’t able to consolidate its power in the long run, then it’s due to self-destruction or natural disaster.

      • Anonymous

        Your analyses are sound. My perception’s are preconditioned through years of observation. I believe we are demiltarizing our foreign policy to shift out of kinetics to soft power diplomacy per the Obama Doctrine but we must remember Barack Obama is a stealth hard power executive. He relentlessly pursued OBL and executed him in the field. Different guises…same REALPOLITIK I am thinking. Thanks for your informed response#