The Ukrainian crisis could influence the foreign policies of Asia-Pacific states in several ways. This analysis will try to explain in what way international relations between China, Japan, Russia and the United States could be affected by the ongoing crisis in Eastern Europe. The situation in Ukraine is, to say the least, very delicate. In the past months, the international community has offered public statements and has taken positions concerning the Ukrainian crisis, most of them being controversial.
China’s position on the issue has been extremely moderate. Not surprisingly, Beijing sat on the sidelines and has managed to remain partially neutral in its public statements. In early March, US National Security Adviser, Susan Rice spoke to Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi about the Ukraine situation and agreed that “the United States and China share an interest in supporting efforts to identify a peaceful resolution to the ongoing dispute between Russia and Ukraine that is based on respect for international law and upholds Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” (Reuters, 2014). Based on this statement, the easy conclusion to be drawn is that China supports the US position on Ukraine and, at the same time, withholds any sort of criticism of Russia. The interesting issue here is that Beijing publicly declared that it supports Ukraine territorial integrity. Does this position affect its relation with Russia?
The answer is given by the Chinese report of the talk, which related that Rice briefed Yang on the US view and position on the matter. No indication of an agreement between the two states was given in the report. Yang, for his part, expounded China’s principled stand on Ukraine’s situation” (Xinhuanet, 2014). There’s no agreement implied in Xinhua’s write-up, and this represents a contrast from statements on Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s conversation with his Russian counterpart. Although China didn’t go quite as far as the Russian Foreign Ministry did in noting the “coincidence of positions,” FM spokesman Qin Gang did mention that “both believe that a proper settlement of the Ukrainian crisis is of vital importance to regional peace and stability” (Xinhuanet, 2014). However anodyne, the absence of a similar admission of agreement, regarding Rice and Yang’s conversation, is telling (Tiezzi, 2014).
Interestingly enough, the report did not include any referral to China’s previously declared support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. On the 2nd of March, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China issued a statement saying that the country position is not to interfere in other’s internal affairs, but also said they respect the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, 2014). Since then, however, this expression of support has disappeared from China’s official remarks. Qin has been asked repeatedly about China’s position on the Ukraine, including at the March 3, March 4, and March 6 press conferences. Despite ample opportunities (including when asked to confirm that this was a point of agreement between Rice and Yang), Qin did not once repeat China’s position of respect for Ukraine’s “independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity.” Instead, China’s Foreign Ministry appears to have switched to expressing support for “the lawful rights and interests of all ethnic communities in Ukraine,” a phrase that appeared both in Qin’s March 6 press conference and the Xinhua write-up of Yang’s conversation with Rice (Tiezzi, 2014).
It’s no secret that Beijing’s core principles of non-interference and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity stem from China’s hope that other countries will respond with the same courtesy. But whether China should get involved in Ukraine is rather controversial. From a strategic standpoint, Beijing could think that the active American involvement in Ukraine will impede the US policy towards the Asia-Pacific and, by doing so, will help China in its own strategy in the region. More than this, China has clearly no interest in supporting any public protests against a regime and legitimizing these actions as forms of sociopolitical reform and development are not in the country’s best interest.
A possible explanation to this position is Taiwan. The Russian seizure of the Crimea provides an interesting template for China as to how eventual reunification might take place in the “worst case” scenario, namely through force. What the Russians have managed on their peninsula is to act quickly and decisively, presenting the world with a fait accompli. They have done so with very little violence, and through the mobilization of insiders supportive to the region, whether or not they are in the majority, it can present photogenic welcoming parties to the arriving forces. At the very least, the situation is not (even in the Western media) a black-and-white case of aggression. That is all that Russia needed; it is difficult to envisage any outcome of the crisis now which does not see Russia with a strengthened position in the Crimea, irrespective of what happens with the rest of the Ukraine. A corresponding outcome with Taiwan would suit China nicely (Peng, 2014).
Another key player in the Asia-Pacific is Japan. The Russian decision to send military forces to Ukraine has created a painful set of choices for Tokyo. Like some countries in Europe, Japan’s energy dependence on Russia makes the idea of sanctions troubling. Yet Tokyo too is particularly sensitive these days to the international community’s willingness to oppose the use of force to seize territory. With China increasingly challenging its sovereignty over islands in the East China Sea, Japan is not really in the position of not standing up for others that are challenged by land grabs (Smith, 2014). The Japanese position on the Ukrainian crisis is difficult because, ideally, Tokyo wants to enjoy a close relationship with both the US and Russia.
In the past 60 years, Japan’s foreign policies and strategies have been directed mostly towards strengthening its alliance with Washington. This direction may seem even more relevant today, in the context of the new National Security Strategy, which states that close ties with the US are indispensable in dealing with China and other geopolitical factors (Tiezzi, 2014).
In spite of this, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has tried to improve ties also with Russia. The Russian-Japanese relations are not very warm due to the territorial disputes and the lack of a peace treaty post World War II. In the past year, the two countries have benefited from high-level contacts, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Putin on multiple occasions. Also, Japan and Russia held their first-ever “2+2” meeting, at which their foreign and defense ministers discussed security cooperation. Although the meeting failed to make headlines, it was a significant step, given that Japan has held similar meetings only with the United States and Australia. For Russia, this was its first “2+2” meeting with an Asian country. In spite of these recent developments, Russia and Japan are hardly partners (Pourzitakis, 2014). But, as a sign of warming relations, Japan and Russia are conducting talks to try and resolve the issue of the Northern Territories (known as the Kuril Islands in Russia). The document would be an important symbolic sign of renewed Japan-Russia ties, and Japan could be fearing that the Ukraine crisis won’t derail the negotiations.
In light of the crisis in Ukraine, Japan finds itself in a complicated situation. These conflicting calculations are reflected in Japan’s official statements on the Ukraine issue. As a member of the G7, Japan signed on to a G7 Leaders Statement harshly criticizing Russia. In the statement, the G7 leaders “condemn the Russian Federation’s clear violation of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, in contravention of Russia’s obligations under the UN Charter and its 1997 basing agreement with Ukraine.” The statement also committed the G7 nations “to support Ukraine in its efforts to restore unity, stability and political and economic health to the country” (White House website & UK Government website, 2014). Previous to the G7 Leaders Statement, when asked about sanctions on March 5, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga offered only a wishful thought: “Our nation’s position is that we strongly call for a peaceful solution and we expect all parties to act carefully, with self-restraint and responsibility” (Smith, 2014).
Russia’s incursion into Ukraine is setting off alarm bells in Tokyo, where officials worry that any push by Japan’s Western allies to impose economic penalties will undermine its drive to improve relations with Moscow.
Conclusively, the Ukrainian crisis could have an impact on the relations in the Asia-Pacific. With the United States and Russia as main actors, a viable option for China and Japan would be to remain neutral in order not to worsen their alliances and, in the same time, not to compromise their well-known positions on such issues. But whether the two states will manage to do that is debatable.
Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China (2014). Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Qin Gang’s Remarks on the Current Situation in Ukraine. Retrieved at the 25th of March 2014 from http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/xwfw/s2510/2535/t1133558.shtml.
Peng, A. (2014). Ukraine – A Case for Chinese Involvement. The Diplomat. Retrieved at the 23rd of March 2013 from http://thediplomat.com/2014/03/ukraine-a-case-for-chinese-involvement/.
Pourzitakis, S. (2014). Japan and Russia: Arctic Friends. The Diplomat. Retrieved at the 2nd of February 2014 from http://thediplomat.com/2014/02/japan-and-russia-arctic-friends/.
Sheldrick, A. (2014). Japan’s embrace of Russia under threat with Ukraine crisis. Reuters. Retrieved at the 25th of March 2014 from http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/03/06/us-ukraine-crisis-obama-china-idUSBREA2508E20140306.
Smith, S. (2014). Japan’s Painful Choice on The Ukraine Crisis. Forbes. Retrieved at the 25th of March 2014 from http://www.forbes.com/sites/sheilaasmith/2014/03/05/japans-painful-choice-on-the-ukraine-crisis/.
Tiezzi, S. (2014 Between a Rock and a Hard Place: Japan’s Ukraine Dilemma. The Diplomat. Retrieved at the 22nd of March 2014 from http://thediplomat.com/2014/03/between-a-rock-and-a-hard-place-japans-ukraine-dilemma/.
Tiezzi, S. (2014). China Prioritizes Ukraine’s ‘Ethnic Groups’ Over Its ‘Territorial Integrity’. The Diplomat. Retrieved at the 26th of March 2014 from http://thediplomat.com/2014/03/china-prioritizes-ukraines-ethnic-groups-over-its-territorial-integrity/.
United Kingdom government (2014). Joint G7 statement from The Hague . Retrieved at the 25th of March 2014 from https://www.gov.uk/government/news/joint-g7-statement-from-the-hague.
White House (2014). Statement of G-7 Leaders on Ukraine. Retrieved at the 25th of March 2014 from http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/03/12/statement-g-7-leaders-ukraine.
Xinhuanet news (2014). Chinese State Councilor, U.S. National Security Advisor discuss Ukraine over phone. Retrieved at the 24th of March 2014 from http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-03/06/c_133166793.htm?utm_content=buffer1b930&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer.