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Arming Ukraine: Lessons for Beijing

(Image Source: Getty Images via The Hill)

By Kelsey Broderick |

If the current cease-fire agreement between the rebels and the Ukrainian government fails, as is looking increasingly likely as fighting continues, the United States will have to make an important choice about how to move forward. One of the likely options is arming the Ukrainian government. At a press conference with Angela Merkel on February 9th, President Obama cautioned, “If, in fact, diplomacy fails, what I’ve asked my team to do is to look at all options”—options which include delivering lethal arms to the Ukrainian government. Whether or not the United States goes forward with this option will have a profound impact on not only the Ukrainian conflict but also on those watching the drama unfold in Beijing. For Beijing, the outcome of the conflict in the Ukraine could have serious implications for its own ideas of sovereignty and contested territory.

China, Crimea and Core Interests

China has thus far resisted explicitly taking sides in the Ukrainian conflict. On 1 March 2014, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said, “It is China’s long-standing position not to interfere in others’ internal affairs. We respect the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.” He was, however, quick to add, “There are reasons for why the situation in Ukraine is what it is today.” Qin was undoubtedly referring to Western support of a February 2014 coup that ousted the pro-Russian Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych, and paved the way for a pro-West and pro-NATO replacement. This was seen as a direct threat to Russia’s core strategic interests, particularly with regard to Western encroachment on Russia’s borders. Russia responded to this threat by supporting a rebel takeover of Crimea, an area on Russia’s border with a majority Russian speaking population that contains offshore oil and gas reserves and one that houses Russia’s Black Sea Naval Base.

Beijing also knows a thing or two about core strategic interests. These include not only Taiwan, but also territory in the East and South China Seas, both of which are also internationally contested areas home to large energy reserves.  In the South China Sea, China claims ownership of a large portion of the sea, including areas that overlap with the exclusive economic zone claims of Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and others. In the East, China has laid claim to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, an island chain that is currently under control of Japan and lies near rich fishing grounds and oil and gas reserves.

China has repeatedly asserted that it has a historical claim on these areas and has refused to take part in international litigation regarding these claims. Furthermore, the government has made very clear it does not welcome any outside (or Western) involvement in the disputes. The United States, meanwhile, while not directly involved in any of these claims, has robust economic and security agreements with a number of the stake-holders in these disputes and has vowed to increase its presence in Asia. Beijing has undoubtedly drawn parallels between this new push by Washington and the spread of pro-Western sentiment in the Ukraine.

China’s decision not to take a stand on the conflict also reflects the continued and growing relationship between China and Russia. In May, China and Russia signed a $400 billion gas deal and in July, the two countries held a naval drill off the coast of Russia that was the largest drill the People’s Liberation Army had ever participated in. The two countries also share a mutual interest in fostering Eurasian security and hedging against the maritime alliances of the United States.

US Response

A decision by the American government to become militarily involved in the dispute in Ukraine would effectively signal to Beijing that expansionist efforts or solutions to territorial disputes that rely on military strength instead of diplomacy will actually give rise to harsh consequences from the United States, particularly when the area in question is of importance to a U.S. ally. Increased U.S. engagement in the Crimea crisis would be particularly striking, as Crimea is not an area that is considered one of the United States’ core interests, much like the dispute in the East and South China Seas. In addition, Beijing might rethink a sudden or rash response to any perceived American encroachment once they see that a similar response would not simply cause America to ‘back off.’

If, on the other hand, the US decides not to pursue a hard line against Russia, then China may be inclined to deepen its friendship with Russia even more. Throwing their support behind Russia’s decision to pursue its core-interests would give China a strong ally if they choose to pursue action in the East or South China Seas. And a strong China allied with a strong Russia would appear as a formidable bloc opposite a weak United States.


China has consistently viewed the American pivot to Asia with suspicion. Xi Jinping has instead called for an ‘Asia for Asians,’ an idea that envisions the people of Asia running their own affairs and managing their own security. If the United States were to provide arms to the Ukrainian government it would send the message that regional disputes that disrupt the security and peace of a region as well as threaten U.S. allies are not actions that the United States will take lightly. China may therefore think twice about escalating conflict in the region under the assumption that they can bully weaker powers without any larger consequences. If Beijing sees that intransigence toward diplomacy and a refusal to stop aggression signals a strong response by the United States, they may be increasingly likely to search for a diplomatic and peaceful solution to their own core interests. And for U.S. allies, sending weapons would show that the U.S. pivot to Asia is not simply empty words.