While invading Russian tanks lumbered into Georgia last month, crowds in Beijing were pouring into Olympic venues in a globally televised show of international engagement.
The contrasting images may yield a diplomatic boon for China, one that could bring real advantages in its rise to global prominence. While both Russia and China rank as newly assertive global giants, China — even with its surging foreign trade, booming military spending and growing international reach — looks practically benign compared with an angry, aggressive Russia, experts say.
“You can’t help noting the imagery,” said Bobo Lo, director of Russia and China programs at the Center for European Reform in London. “It seems to be a contrast that works in China’s favor.”
China could certainly use the boost. Fears over its economic rise, widespread unrest in Tibet and chaos surrounding the Olympic torch relay combined to dent Beijing’s image abroad this year.
Since then, praise for the Beijing Games and May’s devastating earthquake in Sichuan Province have helped moderate the criticism, establishing positive momentum that flattering comparisons with Russia should help sustain.
In material terms, China stands to gain most from closer relations with Central Asia, a region that remains wary of Russian intentions and where Beijing is investing heavily in hopes of securing access to oil and gas.
It could also bring about closer ties with the US and Europe, who have criticized Russia’s recent moves and are now reevaluating their overall relationship with Moscow.
“While Russia looks like a grasping, combative power, China appears to be engaging” with the outside world, Lo said. “Beijing doesn’t want to foul up ties with Russia but relations with the US are much more important.”
Achieving that balance requires an exceptionally cautious response.
On Tuesday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu (姜瑜) offered up only a bland statement on the situation and ignored a question about Moscow’s recent warning to the international community not to support Georgia’s leadership and call for an arms embargo against the ex-Soviet republic.
“We hope relevant countries and relevant parties continue their efforts through dialogue and consultation to ease the situation and find a proper resolution for regional peace and stability,” Jiang said at a regular news conference.
Earlier, the ministry said it was concerned about the situation in Georgia, but offered no specifics. Last week, China joined Central Asian states in ignoring Russia’s plea for an endorsement of its diplomatic recognition of two Moscow-backed separatist enclaves in Georgia.
“Beijing’s policy so far, such as it is, is what one can describe [as] ‘masterly inactivity’ — do as little as possible, not antagonize anyone, but not support anyone either,” said Steve Tsang (曾銳生), a China expert at Oxford University.
Despite frequently partnering with Russia to contain US influence, Beijing has plenty of reasons for quietly opposing Moscow’s Georgia agenda.
Moscow’s recognition of the rebel regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia has tweaked Chinese anxieties about independence movements in its restive western regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, as well as Taiwan, said June Teufel Dreyer, a Chinese politics expert at the University of Florida.
“The implications of recognizing South Ossetia and Abkhazia set dangerous precedents,” Dreyer said.