The Ukraine Conflict – Do the Agendas of Russia and China Overlap?

Facing the conflict in the Ukraine, tensions between Russia, the European Union and the United States are rapidly rising. Both economic and diplomatic sanctions are considered by US President Obama. The NATO member countries are holding emergency meetings.[1] Until now, China merely declared its neutral position and gave no comments regarding the Russian deployment on the Crimean Peninsula although China might play an important role in the further development of Ukraine conflict.

Three aspects might be of especial importance why China might more likely support Putin’s Russia: energy politics, geopolitics and domestic stability.

Russia is one of the most important natural gas exporters to Europe, particularly to Germany which is strongly dependent on Russia. For Russia, in turn, energy resources are the most essential business income. Thus, they are interdependent to some degree, but their dependency is not symmetrical. Russia has also an interesting market in East Asia now. China, South Korea and Japan are big consumers. In 2013 Russia concluded an agreement with China to provide natural gas and crude oil. The gas delivery will start from 2018, and China will replace Germany as the biggest gas importer from Russia.[2] Russia also made a proposal to build a gas pipeline from Russia to South Korea either via North Korea or through the sea as well as connect the Siberia Railway to the South Korean railway system.[3] Thereby Russia could be in a stronger position than the European nations. China’s rapidly expanding economy sorely needs energy; thus, it would not be so wise to undermine its relationships with Russia.

Like Russia, China’s expansionist politics are quite remarkable. Establishing the ADIZ (air defense identification zone) in the East China Sea in November 2013 and applying a unilateral rule to patrol foreign vessels in the South China Sea as from January 2014 indicate China’s current expansionist politics as a sea power. China would like to concentrate on its sea front, while Russia would like to concentrate on its European front. Both might wish to avoid confronting each other at the rear front. Russia and China wish to cooperate in the respective backyards and fight against separatists, who may have connections to terrorists in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other Central Asian countries. On March 1, 2014 more than 20 people were killed and over 100 injured in the Chinese city Kunming (Zurich’s sister city). It was alleged that Uyghur separatists were responsible for this bloodbath.[4] Putin also has problems with separatists.

The issue of separatism is, in turn, of serious concern for the domestic stability in China. China as a multi-ethnic country is well aware of the risk of falling apart if the government were as weak as the Ukrainian which succumbed to the opposition’s pressure. Hence, China might support Putin’s Russia as a demonstration to the Chinese people that hostile actions against the government do not yield anything, i.e., the opposition cannot win. The downside of Crimea’s independence from the Ukraine is the possible boost in motivation to Chinese separatists; therefore, China might have preferred a strong Ukrainian government to the opposition’s victory.

Even if the US and the EU criticize Russia and support the Ukrainian opposition, it could depend strongly on China’s decision if Russia carries on its actions against the Ukraine. China is also a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, which holds the veto right. As for Russia, it is optimal and ideal if China remains at least neutral. Both Russia and China can thereby concentrate on their respective interests.


[1] AP: Putin: Russia has right to use force in Ukraine, March 4, 2014. [Accessed March 4, 2014]

[2] The Wall Street Journal: Russia and China in Major Natural-Gas Supply Pact, March 23, 2013. [Accessed March 3, 2014]

[3] The Voice of Russia: Russia and South Korea, Energy kyoryoku wo kyoka (Energy cooperation strengthened), November 16, 2013. [Accessed January 7, 2014]

[4] The Wall Street Journal: Xinjiang Separatists Said to Be Behind Attack ata Train Station, March 3, 2014. [Accessed March 4, 2014]

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