As world leaders scramble to shape events in Ukraine, China has stood by unable even to articulate its stance, exposing its muddled approach to foreign affairs despite its fast-growing global interests and stature, analysts say.
Beijing can partly blame the lag on its rapid ascent into the top tier of international heavyweights. Yet it faces huge pressure to catch up fast, both from other governments and its own increasingly far-flung nationals and companies.
“Welcome to the real world,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, a China expert and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“China by now has global interests, but is not a global strategist or global player... [it] is not the one that initiates and tries to drive the outcome,” he said.
Although China aspires to greater global standing, it pursues narrow goals overseas, as long as its core concerns are not involved, letting its ally and fellow UN Security Council member Russia take the lead on crises such as the conflict in Syria, while it zeroes in on business deals in Africa and elsewhere.
The Chinese foreign ministry tends toward non-specific bromides, urging “calm” here, “restraint” there and a “political solution” elsewhere.
“But they have interests now that force them to get beyond those broad statements,” Lieberthal said. “They have to make commitments, they have provide security, they have to do contingency planning.”
On Ukraine, where Moscow has deployed troops in Crimea while the West backs an opposition that is now in government, Beijing has found itself struggling to take a stand, stymied by competing interests.
For years it has sought to solidify ties with Russia, successor to the Soviet Union, which was once a brother communist state until a bitter split, followed by rapprochement.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) made it his first destination after taking office last year and again last month, attending the Sochi Winter Olympics while Western leaders stayed away. Yet Beijing also vehemently urges “non-interference” in other countries’ domestic affairs, in part to facilitate trade with unsavory regimes — but especially to discourage foreign support for popular uprisings.
China regularly brandishes the concept to ward off criticism from Western powers of its policies in its Tibet and Xinjiang regions, where ethnic minorities complain of repression, feeding political dissent.
“China has long maintained a principle of non-interference in internal affairs and respects Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the Chinese foreign ministry said on its Web site this week.
“There are reasons that the Ukrainian situation is what it is today,” it added, in what Niu Jun (牛軍), a professor of international affairs at Peking University, interpreted as a reference to Russia’s long-standing links with Crimea.
The events in Ukraine were “very inconvenient” for Beijing, he said. “That’s why they came out with a statement nobody can understand.”
When pressed to clarify whether Beijing supported Moscow’s actions or considered them a form of interference, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang (秦剛) refused to elaborate.
On its Web site, the ministry said China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi (楊潔篪) told US National Security Adviser Susan Rice on Thursday that a resolution must “take full care of the legitimate rights of the Ukrainian people” — without specifying what they were.