Russia’s military occupation and impending annexation of the Crimea in Ukraine has put Beijing in a difficult spot, confronting Chinese leaders with numerous competing priorities and principles. Having cultivated good relations with both Russia and Ukraine, they would prefer to avoid antagonizing one party by siding too closely with the other. Yet, China’s recent approach shows how Beijing is now more willing to dilute longstanding foreign policy principles to align with Moscow.
Throughout the months of unrest in Ukraine, Chinese media commentary has generally echoed Russia’s line that Western machinations were contributing to the instability in Kiev, which finally led to the change of regime that triggered Russia’s military intervention in the Crimean Peninsula. Beijing can hardly have welcomed the specter of another mass movement overthrowing a government. In addition to recalling earlier “color revolutions” in which pro-Western factions toppled longstanding pro-Moscow rulers in some of the former Soviet republics, Chinese analysts have warned that these same forces were seeking to overturn China’s communist system.
But the official line of the Chinese government has been much more circumspect. On Feb. 24, the day after former President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted by the Ukrainian Parliament, China’s United Nations mission issued a statement to the media saying, “We respect the choice made by the Ukrainian people on the basis of national conditions.” Days later, when the first reports of Russian military action in Crimea started trickling in, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Qin Gang reaffirmed China’s commitment to Ukraine’s “independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity,” and called for a peaceful resolution “with all sides respecting international law”—including the principle of noninterference in another country’s internal affairs.