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China Set To Gain From Most Outcomes In Crimea

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) chats with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping before the G20 summit in St. Petersburg late last year.
A draft UN Security Council resolution condemning Russian actions in Crimea as violations of Ukraine's territorial integrity is expected to be put to a vote ahead of Crimea's March 16 referendum on whether the region should secede from Ukraine and join Russia.

There is no doubt Russia will use its veto powers as a permanent Security Council member to block such a resolution.

But Western diplomats hope a vote showing where other Security Council members stand will increase pressure on Moscow by demonstrating that Russia is isolated from the rest of the international community.

As a result, Western diplomats have been focusing their efforts on trying to convince China not to side with Russia by vetoing the resolution.

So far, China has remained largely silent about the Kremlin's incursion in Crimea and its military buildup this week on Russia's border with eastern Ukraine.

But most experts say Beijing does not appear prepared, for now, to defend Russia by using its veto at the UN Security Council.

Beijing has consistently stressed the need for "political solutions." Some analysts say that leaves the door open for Beijing to describe Crimea's regional referendum on March 16 as a process of "reunification" with Russia rather than secession or annexation.

On March 14, China's Foreign Ministry issued a statement about Beijing's position on the draft Security Council resolution.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hun Lei repeated China's emphasis on the need for political solutions, saying: "We hope that disagreements will be settled through dialogue and consultations. The more difficult the problem is, the more careful the reaction should be. We believe that the crisis should be settled by political means."

Francois Godement, head of the Asia and China Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, says he doubts China will support any draft text that openly criticizes Russia.

He says the most Western allies can hope for is that China abstains from the vote rather than joining a Russian veto. He suggests that Beijing is often guided by its Taiwan policy in Security Council votes.

"Secession, of course, is the nightmare for China essentially because of the Taiwan issue since China maintains that Taiwan is an integral part of China," he says. "And this is the thing upon which they agree with the Republic of China [Taiwan]. But of course, any move by Taiwan to distance itself from the script of being part of China would be a catastrophe for China. So they have consistently opposed this. And in fact, you can look at the pattern of their UN votes – and very often, when they have used their veto, it was because , one way or another, the issue of Taiwan and one China was in question."

Knock-On Effect

Analysts agree that further Russian military incursions in Ukraine could lead to a new Cold War with NATO countries – essentially undermining Washington's plans to confront China's regional territorial claims with a so-called "pivot" to Asia strategy.

Economically, U.S. and European sanctions that weaken Russia would put China in a uniquely influential situation because it could benefit from sanction regimes that it is not taking part in.

That could lead Russia to agree to Chinese offers for the purchase of natural gas -- price offers that are at a lower price than what countries in the European Union are now paying.

“If the West imposes sanctions, China is experienced – as it has done over Burma, North Korea, and Iran – in sort of taking the place of the West – actually collecting economic benefits but remaining a partner," says Godement. "And with Russia, that is also obviously the short-term and long-term energy question. An impoverished Russia would also be more dependent on China."

China also stands to benefit from a knock-on effect in its regional diplomacy, if Britain and the United States fail to stand behind security assurances they offered to Ukraine under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum.

According to Godement, that's because Beijing would be able to suggest that neither Washington nor Britain live up to their security commitments:

"If the West does not really go all the way against Russia on Ukraine, then the Chinese reap what I would call a strategic benefit," he says. "The 1994 so-called Budapest Memorandum to protect Ukraine's national sovereignty and integrity, they could show that the U.S. and the UK are not actually implementing what amounts to an alliance. It's not exactly an alliance. It's a little weaker than that. But still, that's very important when China is talking to its neighbors with which it has maritime and territorial issues."

Gondement concludes that this would allow China "to tread even more confidently in the China Sea, while holding up the flag of 'sovereignty' and 'territorial integrity' – the very values that the West is seeking to defend in Ukraine.”

He sees China as the only permanent Security Council member poised to reap benefits from almost any outcome of the Crimea crisis.