Winners and Losers: China and the Crisis in Ukraine

Copyright: J.H. Cho

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.[1] 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. From:

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.[2] 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.[3]

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

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.[4] 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: and

Copyright: and

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)


[1] Shannon Tiezzi, “China Reacts to the Crimea Referendum,” The Diplomat, accessed May 21, 2014,

[2] Matthew Karnitschnig, “German Businesses Urge Halt on Sanctions Against Russia,” Wall Street Journal, May 2, 2014, sec. Europe,

[3] “China, Germany Establish Comprehensive Strategic Partnership,” Global Times, accessed May 22, 2014,

[4] Chris Wright, “$400 Billion Gas Deal Shows Russia Looking To China To Replace Western Money,” Forbes, accessed May 22, 2014,


Partners on the Silk Road: The Growing Sino-Turkmen Partnership Signifies Greater Chinese Role in Central Asia and Beyond

Chinese president Xi Jinping and Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov inspect the PLA's mixed sex honour guards.  Copyright:

Chinese president Xi Jinping and Turkmen president Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov inspect the PLA’s mixed sex honour guards.

The president of Turkmenistan, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov has begun a three-day state visit to China starting on May 12. Arriving to a grand welcoming ceremony, the Turkmen president had the opportunity to be the first head of state to inspect China’s recently revealed female honour guards. Following a tradition in the Sino-Turkmen relationship, Berdymukhamedov presented the Chinese president Xi Jinping with an Akhal-Teke horse, a rare breed native to Turkmenistan renowned for its tough endurance and aesthetic allure.[1] A national treasure of Turkmenistan, the Akhal-Teke too occupies a special place in Chinese history. The breed was a favorite of the Emperor Wu of Han (the Martial Emperor of Han), an accomplished leader remembered for his military ventures and political reforms. So in other words, the Akhal-Teke was, and still is the horse made for the premier decision maker of China.

Of course there are other ways to interpret the meaning of the present. The gifting of an Akhal-Teke horse, known for its velocity, embodies the Turkmen president’s well wishes for a galloping Sino-Turkmen friendship that is certainly receiving a boost with his visit. Several important deals were concluded on May 13, pledging cooperation on energy, infrastructure, agriculture and banking. Most importantly, a Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation was signed by Xi and Berdymukhamedov, further cementing the strategic partnership between the world’s second largest economy and the country with the fourth largest reserve of the world’s natural gas.[2]

China, an active participant in international geopolitics is demonstrating increasing astuteness in conducting foreign policy. As the US, EU and Russia lock horns in Ukraine, China is quietly pursuing its main foreign policy objectives through a new round of tactful and effective pivot to Central Asia.

China’s goals in building stronger bilateral, as well as multilateral relations with Central Asian states are tri-fold. Over the years, China surpassed Russia in becoming the largest trading partner of Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, two of the region’s most vibrant economies and China’s key oil and gas suppliers. China is also the second largest trading partner of Uzbekistan (a country refered to by Zbigniew Brzezinski as the “deposit of Central Asian cultural heritage”), Kyrgyzstan, and the third largest for Tajikistan. Besides increasing trade turnovers, Central Asian countries have become the main recipients of generous Chinese loans and investments, in return, a energy-hungry China benefits enormously from Central Asia’s abundant energy resources.[3]

Central Asia oil and gas pipelines.  Copyright: US Energy Information Administration.

Central Asia gas pipelines.
Copyright: US Energy Information Administration.

The other aspect of China’s foreign policy objectives regarding Central Asia is security. From the Chinese point of view, the recent wave of terrorist attacks in various Chinese urban centers is most definitely ordered by extremist organizations operating from abroad.[4] This seemingly brash assertion is not purely predicated upon inflamed passion in the aftermath of multiple terrorist attacks. During the 1990s, there were individuals from China’s Xinjiang Uighur autonomous region who received military training in camps ran by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.[5] Today, the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), a terrorist organization well connected to al-Qaeda still maintains cells in Pakistan’s western tribal areas. Afghanistan, and to a greater extend Pakistan still poses a significant challenge for all parties involved, especially its immediate neighbors. China, as one of the leading members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), had organized and participated in several joint SCO military exercises designed to counter terrorist attacks.[6] As mentioned previously, China has vested interests in Central Asia’s oil and gas resources transported by expansive, interconnected network of pipelines, which are particularly vulnerable to terrorist organizations seeking to disrupt Chinese economy. Hence, not only does the Chinese government plan to adjust the asymmetrical socio-economic conditions in Xinjiang with reformist policies, it also seeks to work closely with Central Asian partners in maintaining regional security and stability.

Boys at a Pakistan-based training camp fire AK-47's in this undated video released by the al-Qaeda affiliated Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) terror group. [Video frame grab/] From: Central Asia Online

Boys at a Pakistan-based training camp fire AK-47’s in this undated video released by the al-Qaeda affiliated Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) terror group. [Video frame grab/]
From: Central Asia Online

Aside from the goals of economic development and enhancing regional security cooperation, China’s prioritization of Central Asia on its foreign policy agenda is also part of its greater strategic vision to pave the foundational stones for the rejuvenation of the fabled Silk Road. The concept of a Silk Road Economic Zone, first proposed jointly by Kazakh president Nursaltan Nazarbayev and Chinese president Xi Jinping in 2013 seeks to revitalize the ancient trade route of prosperity utilizing the collective efforts of all nations in the Central Asian region.[7] However, there is evidence that China’s economic ambitions are much greater than simply reinvigorating a limited section of the treasured Silk Road. As a matter of fact, there were discussions among Chinese experts for years regarding a possible high-speed railway line connecting Beijing and London (the recent talks were quickly abandoned).[8]

The ancient Silk Road Copyright: Stratfor.

The ancient Silk Road.
Copyright: Stratfor

It would be interesting to keep a close watch on China’s upcoming foreign policy overture towards Central Asian republics in the long run. The Silk Road Economic Zone has impressive promises for global economic integration. And it would be intriguing to analyze its economic, likewise geopolitical implications upon a post-2014 Afghanistan as well as the Eurasian Union proposed by none other than Russia’s Putin. In the short run, China will be welcoming a multitude of influential Eurasian leaders starting the middle of May. From May 20 to May 21, China will be hosting the upcoming 4th Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Shanghai. A multinational forum designed to increase peace and cooperation between states along the traditional Silk Road; it will be very interesting to note the results of the conference and its effects upon China’s new economic paradigm for Central Asia and beyond.

(Copyright 2014 Zi Yang)


[1] Bree Feng, “The Horse at the Heart of Chinese-Turkmen Relations,” Sinosphere Blog, accessed May 13, 2014,

[2] Huseyn Hasanov, “Turkmenistan, China – Largest Partners in Gas Sphere,” Trend, accessed May 13, 2014,

[3] 左凤荣, “共建‘丝绸之路经济带’面临的机遇与挑战,”人民网, accessed May 13, 2014,

[4] 张家栋, “反恐也需“内病外治“,” 中国新, accessed May 14, 2014,

[5] Thomas Joscelyn, “Uighurs Released to Bermuda All Trained at Terrorist Camp in Tora Bora,” accessed May 14, 2014,

[6] Roger McDermott, “China Leads SCO Peace Mission 2012 in Central Asia,” The Jamestown Foundation, accessed May 14, 2014,

[7] “Xi Proposes ‘Silk Road Economic Zone’ with Central Asia,”, accessed May 14, 2014,

[8] Daniel Politi, “Report: China Mulls Construction of a High Speed Train to the U.S.,” Slate, May 10, 2014,

And What About the Crimean Tatars? Five Reasons Why the United States and its Allies Must Take a Leading Role on Safeguarding the Rights of the Crimean Tatars

A Crimean Tatar praying.  Copyright: Reuters

A Crimean Tatar praying.
Copyright: Reuters

The protection and the betterment of human dignity are the moral obligation and legal responsibility of all nations. However, Russia’s recent annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula not only constituted a serious breach of internationally law, it is, moreover a severe human rights violation concerning minority ethnic groups native to Crimea, namely, the Crimean Tatars.

A Turkic group native to the Crimean Peninsula, the Crimean Tatars once comprised the core population of the Crimean Khanate that ruled large swath of territory encompassing modern day southern Ukraine, as well as parts of Russia’s Rostov Oblast and Krasnodar Krai. The Khanate began to decline in the early 18th century under a combination of factors. Eventually, it succumbed to Russian military advances in 1783. Ever since, the Crimean Tatars has been foreigners in their native land, often facing discriminatory policies under successive regimes. The years under Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was the most calamitous chapter in Crimean Tatar history. Using the pretext that the Tatars had collaborated with invading Nazi forces, Stalin ordered the wholesale deportation of Tatars from Crimea to Central Asia on May 18, 1944. Known as the Sürgünlik (exile), the dreadful day of May 18 marked the beginning of the Crimean Tatar nation’s long march into darkness on the bleak Central Asian steppes.

Most Tatars returned to their Crimean homeland in the early 1990s when the Ukraine became an independent nation following the disintegration of the Soviet Union. The recent Russian annexation of Crimea came as a terrible shock to most Tatars, who staunchly opposed to the region’s return to Russian rule. Although most of the world has not accepted the Russian annexation, the fait accompli means the Crimean Tatars will now have to endure increasing pressure from the Russian authority. Curiously, in spite of the statements by the United States and it allies against Russia’s actions vis-à-vis the Ukraine, none have focused on the Tatars who are on the receiving end of heavy handed tactics from the incoming Russian authority. This is a rather unfortunate fact, because the Tatars desperately needs outside support in a time of extreme cataclysm. Recently, Russian border guards banned Crimean Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev from entering Crimea.[1] And on May 4, Crimea’s regional prosecutor, Natalia Poklonskaya labeled the protests of the Mejlis,the Crimean Tatar’s main self-governing body, as “extremist activities” that could result in the “liquidation” of the organization.[2]

Vocal US support for Crimean Tatars rights shall be placed higher up on the Obama administration’s foreign policy agenda for the following reasons:

First and foremost, it is the US’ duty as a responsible, influential great power to speak up for oppressed minority groups lacking adequate communication channels to express their human rights predicament.

Second, vocal US support could shed more light upon the plight of an ethnic group not exactly cheerful about Russian rule of Crimea, contrary to the oversimplified media portrayal of Crimea as a historically Russian region inhabited wholly by ethnic Russians.

Third, the Tatars, despite being a minority in Crimea, exhibits three distinct identities that could invoke resounding popular sentiments abroad. European in terms of geographic alignment, the Crimean Tatars are followers of the Islamic faith with protruding Turkic features both in physical appearance and cultural manifestation. Given such context, forthright US support for Crimean Tatar rights will not only enhance their capacity to struggle against threats from the Russian government, it could also cause powerful international reverberation, further limiting Russia’s foreign policy mobility.

Fourth, from a realpolitik perspective, by placing a foreign policy emphasis on the plight of the Crimean Tatars, the US could to a certain degree ameliorate its strained relations with its Middle Eastern allies. In addition, by broadening the Crimean Tatar struggle for basic human rights, the US could also open windows of opportunity for its Turkish and Arab allies to weigh in on Russian imperial ambitions in a conflict geographically distant from the Middle East, yet its outcome crucial towards determining the characteristics of future Russian foreign policy.

Fifth and most importantly, by drawing the attention of the world to this issue, the US could open up a deluge of responsive global public opinion that could very well be the key to preventing further deterioration of the rights of the Crimean Tatars.

As the date of Sürgünlik commemoration approaches, it is important for the US and its allies to stand behind the resilient Crimean Tatar nation that endured no less than a Holocaust in the tragic 20th century. With the forceful return of Russian subjugation, a 21st century world shall know and understand the struggle of the Tatars, and stand steadfastly with them against any form of chauvinist oppression.

(Copyright 2014 Zi Yang)


[1] “Russia Bans Crimean Tatar Leader Mustafa Dzhemilev,” International Business Times, accessed May 10, 2014,

[2] RFE/RL, “Prosecutors Warn Crimean Tatars Over ‘Extremism’ Amid Protests,” RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty, May 4, 2014, sec. Ukraine,