Putin’s Call to Beijing: A Rejected Appeal for Support
On March 1st, 2014, black-clad Russian soldiers invaded the Ukrainian island of Crimea without warning. On March 4th, Putin made a call to China’s President Xi Jinping to discuss the unfolding situation in Ukraine. This article explores the complex Russo-China relationship and China’s response to Putin’s appeal for support.
A reasonable question would be: why does Putin care if China supports or opposes his actions in Ukraine? There are several plausible reasons why Putin would weigh the opinions of China’s leaders. First, China is one of Russia’s largest trading partners. Were China to follow along with Western sanctions against Russia, Putin could face an economic catastrophe at home. Second, if Putin is anticipating future confrontations with NATO, China’s growing military strength and tense relationship with the United States make it an attractive possible ally. Finally, Putin may be attempting to avoid a repeat of the scolding China gave Russia after the latter’s 2008 war with Georgia.
However, if Putin was looking for a clear endorsement of his actions from Xi Jinping, he must have been disappointed. After Putin explained his position on the Ukraine dispute, Xi responded that “(he) trusts that Russia can coordinate with the relevant parties and find a political solution to the crisis while protecting regional and world peace and stability.” If you find that statement unclear, you’re not alone. China’s State Council member Yang Jiechi did not add too much clarity in his conversation with U.S. National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Yang stated that China’s leaders favor “the exercise of restraint by all parties, the use of political means to resolve crises, and that all parties avoid further escalation.” These responses indicate that China’s leaders oppose any future invasion of Ukrainian territory and show China’s desire that Russia, Ukraine, and NATO work out their disagreements peacefully.
Xi’s response to Putin’s actions is a reflection of his prioritization of economic interests over geopolitical games. Political science research on political transitions suggests that economic downturns increase the likelihood of regime change. Siding with Russia could harm China’s relationship with the United States and the European Union, decrease China’s economic growth rate, and increase the likelihood of social unrest. While Putin may believe that expanding American and European influence in Eastern Europe is his greatest threat, China’s leaders have made the calculation that it is the Chinese people who pose a greater threat to their own power. Basically, China’s leaders have little to gain and everything to lose by choosing a side in the conflict as it stands today.