Copyright: J.H. Cho
International politics sometimes resemble a game of poker. Besides having the right players and a lucky hand, meticulous strategizing is perhaps the one crucial factor that determines the winners and losers at the end of the day. International crisis, like the most recent one in Ukraine, is a regrettable yet reoccurring phenomenon of international politics ever since states learned to interact with each other millenniums ago. There are many losers in the Ukraine Crisis. Ukraine, as a country lost sovereign territories, the interim Ukrainian government lost confidence among its constituents, and the citizens of Ukraine lost their right to live a normal life in peace. But Ukraine is far from the sole loser in the ongoing crisis. The United States, its European allies, and to a large extend Russia all took losses in varying degrees as mutual antagonism deepens over the struggle for the breadbasket of Europe (more importantly the gateway to Russia). According to the norms on the poker table, the existence of several losers means there must be clear winner. So which party would that be?
Geographically distant from Ukraine, China may be the only claimant to significant gains in the ongoing crisis. Though an economic giant with considerable international clout, China has a modicum of established interests in the Ukraine. A world apart, Ukraine occupies moderate geopolitical, and economic importance on the Chinese foreign policy agenda. Yet perhaps it is because of its lack of high stakes in Ukraine, China was able to extract the most rewards out of the ongoing turmoil. A canny player in the diplomatic arena, China, throughout the duration of the crisis was able to maintained the status quo with the US, strengthened its ties with the EU, and achieved a crescendo in expanding the Sino-Russian relations.
Though the relationship between US and China has been marred by clash of interests in the West Pacific Rim and mutual accusations of cyber-espionage, China’s artful performance in the Ukraine Crisis in some ways helped in cooling down the scalding bilateral ties. By calling on all parties to respect Ukraine’s “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity”, China avoided inflaming the senses of an already agitated US. Similarly, China curried additional favors with the US in abstaining from voting on a UN resolution that would have condemned the Crimea referendum as illegal (of course, this measure saved Russia some face as well). Overall, the US represented another end of the pole as oppose to Russia. Gravitating too much towards the US position is counterproductive and contradicting to China’s foreign policy objectives. Hence, China chose a middle of the road position to balance relations with both US and Russia to a “golden ratio” most beneficial to Chinese national interests.
Result of Crimea vote at United Nations General Assembly (click on image for higher resolution).
The crisis in Ukraine forced an onerous millstone around the neck of EU leaders. Though facing blatant armed Russian aggression towards a fragile European neighbor, leading EU member states are finding it increasingly difficult to effectively impose further sanctions on Russia due to mutual economic interdependence. Furthermore, headstrong resistance from European business leaders against additional sanctions could possibly open up chasms in the US-EU united front against Russia. In times like these, a stimulating dose of constructive dialogue could be well appreciated. The Chinese leaders understand this earnestly. China’s policy regarding the EU highlights the common wishes of peace and neutrality, ideas aimed to comfort and assure the EU member states of China’s non-confrontational stance, which seems especially charming in the light of Russia’s rapacious behavior against Ukraine. Germany, widely recognized conductor of the EU, proved to be exceptionally amenable in responding to the Chinese call for coexistence and mutual acceptance. Seeking perhaps to check Russia by strengthening ties with its eastern ally, the German and Chinese heads of state jointly declared that they have officially upgraded bilateral relations to a comprehensive strategic partnership on March 28, a development that further enhanced China’s standing vis-à-vis the EU.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands after speaking to the media following talks and the signing of bilateral agreements at the Chancellery on March 28, 2014 in Berlin, Germany. President Xi Jinping is on a two-day official visit to Germany.
Copyright: Sean Gallup/Getty Images Europe
China’s convivial relation with Russia was pushed to a height amid the Ukraine Crisis. However, unlike the past, this time around Russia is the party enthusiastically taking the initiatives in offering China tokens of friendship. This is a corollary of Russia’s economic slowdown facilitated by heavy-hitting Western sanctions and partially stemming from its need to have an even closer relationship with China to substitute sapping influence in Europe. Just yesterday, an estimated $400 billion gas deal was signed between Russia and China, one of the largest joint projects between the two countries to date. Be mindful, this deal was inked after a decade of toilsome, backbreaking negotiations. The Chinese, having secured several willing gas suppliers in the meantime, still have serious reservations over Russia’s business model resulting from Russia’s habitual use of gas cutoffs as a baton to punish “recalcitrant” European states. Nevertheless, China’s tacit assent of Russia’s actions during the crisis bore fruits in obtaining a business contract that serves the interests of both countries and will act as the cement that binds the two states together for decades to come.
Copyright: Gazprom.com and Arcticgas.gov
China’s diplomatic finesse, demonstrated through playing the laohaoren (good old guy) in the recent Ukraine Crisis could very well rank China as the only country that maximized its comprehensive strategic and economic gains in the midst of a tense international deadlock, all at the lowest cost. In addition to the factors mentioned above, China is also concentrating on building its proposed Silk Road Economic Belt, while augmenting its global prestige as the new chairman of CICA or the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia, an Asian security framework that will likely be groomed into a continental mechanism designed to parry any threats to China’s national blueprint for a continuous “peaceful development”.
(Copyright 2014 Zi Yang)
 Shannon Tiezzi, “China Reacts to the Crimea Referendum,” The Diplomat, accessed May 21, 2014, http://thediplomat.com/2014/03/china-reacts-to-the-crimea-referendum/.
 Matthew Karnitschnig, “German Businesses Urge Halt on Sanctions Against Russia,” Wall Street Journal, May 2, 2014, sec. Europe, http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303948104579535983960826054.
 “China, Germany Establish Comprehensive Strategic Partnership,” Global Times, accessed May 22, 2014, http://www.globaltimes.cn/content/851501.shtml.
 Chris Wright, “$400 Billion Gas Deal Shows Russia Looking To China To Replace Western Money,” Forbes, accessed May 22, 2014, http://www.forbes.com/sites/chriswright/2014/05/22/400-billion-gas-deal-shows-russia-looking-to-china-to-replace-western-money/.