On 08/08/08, as the Olympics began, Russian tanks moved into Georgia’s breakaway provinces of Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia. China’s position on the Georgian situation is interesting to consider since China has several provinces that suffer ethnic unrest (re: T###bet and Xinjiang.) Even more important, China has a breakaway province it would like to recover- Taiwan. The aftermath of the Georgian situation could have harsh consequences for international law. China has a vested interest in opposing breakaway provinces, but it also has diplomatic interests with Russia. Below, I analyze why and how the Georgia situation may significantly affect Sino-Russian relations and China’s future foreign policy.
China’s Territorial Philosophy
Due to China’s territorial worries about T$$$bet, Xinjiang, Taiwan, and other minority-zones, it might be suspected, by a casual observer, that China would reflexively support Georgia taking a hard stance against Georgia’s breakaway provinces. However, the situation in Georgia is more complicated.
China could take the “obvious” route, and side with Georgia that the breakaway provinces should hold fast to the country. Since China has significant interest in a good relationship with Russia, perhaps the “obvious” route is to side with Russia? Or maybe China’s best decision is to try to maintain neutrality and let the problem resolve itself?
China’s Direct Foreign Policy
Prof. Robert Ross, who has written significantly about Chinese security, thinks the Chinese could support Russia if Russia’s plans are for eventual subsumation of Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia. China could base their support on old USSR claims of influence (Bloomberg). If the provinces eventually join Russia, China’s claims on Taiwan could still be justified.
What if the provinces ultimately want real independence? Beijing might tacitly support Moscow if a back-door deal details a plan for the provinces to ultimately reunite with Russia (as S. Ossetia appears to be planning). But what if Russia’s recognition of Abkhazia and S. Ossetia’s independence is genuine? That sets a dangerous precedent for would-be breakaway provinces in China.
China has remained silent on the matter at the UN and on its Foreign Ministry website, merely calling for a “peaceful resolution.”
Hu Jintao and Putin met on August 9. The leaders could have discussed the developing Georgian situation, but press releases make no mention of that topic being discussed.
When the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) met, Russia would have liked for SCO member-states to endorse the breakaway provinces. Instead, the SCO “called for respect for the concept of “territorial integrity,” which implies that the SCO opposes the provinces’ independence. However, the SCO may support the provinces’ eventual subsumation into Russia… Which may very well happen.
China And Georgia- What You May Not Have Known
China and Georgia have a relatively “long” and apparently relatively stable history. On April 9, 1991, Georgia declared independence. From 1992-1995, Civil War wreaked havoc in Georgia. China was one of the first countries to recognize Georgia’s independence. On ”December 27, 1991, State Councilor and Foreign Minister Qian Qichen sent a message to Georgian Foreign Minister, informing him that the Chinese Government formally recognized the independence of the Republic of Georgia” (China Foreign Ministry). In June 1992, diplomatic relations began between the nations.
Comparatively, Australia did not recognize Georgia as a country until March 29, 1992. Recognition by the United States came only in April 1992, despite Georgia sending delegations to the United States from as early as 1991.
China and Georgia Trade, Compared to China and Russia Trade
China has little economic interest in supporting the tiny Caucasus country. Although ties between China and Russia might strain over the Georgian situation, China is likely to ultimately bend toward support of Russia.
The volume of China-Georgia trade has been relatively inconsequential. “In 2001, bilateral trade volume between China and Georgia stood at US$7 million, of which China’s export was US$3.71 million and import US$3.29 million” (China Foreign Ministry).
“The trade volume between China and Georgia in 2002 amounted to US$11.51 million, of which China’s export was US$8 million and import US$3.51 million” (China Foreign Ministry).
Comparatively, Sino-Russia trade was $48 billion in 2007, up 44% from 2006 (HERE).
Alternatively: Additional information is in the following articles: A short (2 page) and balanced overview of strategic possibilities of the China-Russia relationship, given by a CSIS/Peterson Institute sponsored project; China and Russia: Partners with Tensions, by Nicklas Norling for the Silk Road Studies Program which gives a more indepth (16-page) view. Jamestown’s Russell Hsiao briefly discusses China and Russia’s military relationship (Interestingly, Hsiao notes a “62 percent drop in Russian arms sale to China last year”.) And finally, Xinhua’s take on the Sino-Russian relations (In May).
Norling’s piece had a provocative statement; “To put it bluntly, Russia needs China more than China needs Russia and Russia’s main problem in maneuvering the relation is its weakness not China’s strength. The only lever that Russia possesses over China is energy but it is reluctant in playing this card prematurely. This is why Russia delays pipelines, does not fulfill reached agreements, and is obstructive in its energy engagements with China” (Norling, 43).
* China has an opportunity to flex its soft power, stepping in as a peacemaker and a deal maker, according to Huang Jing, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s East Asian Institute (HERE). Russia, however, seems to have blown China’s opportunity by recognizing the breakaway provinces. Will negotiations continue behind-the-scenes as China might encourage South Ossetia to be subsumed into Russia. Abkhazia, however, is a thornier issue. The Abkhazians seem to be enjoying their independence.
* China’s soft power may already be in full force. Russia’s ally Kazakhstan didn’t automatically recognize the breakaway regions and is instead calling for a multilateral solution. An article by Farkhad Sharip of the Jamestown Foundation wonders; “But would or would not Nazarbayev have bowed to pressure from Medvedev if it had not been for Chinese leader Hu Jintao who rejected outright Russian attempts to impose recognition of the separatist regions as independent territories?”
* China may be best served by neutrality. China stands to lose potential trade and access to energy resources if it opposes Russia. And China would gain relatively little from helping tiny US-ally Georgia, so it is unlikely China will push for the provinces to return to Georgia. But, by waiting, China can gain influence (IHT) in Central Asia (Financial Times) and elsewhere as planned foreign investments are diverted (WSJ) from Russia to a China that is willing to engage the world instead of to belligerently confront it.
* The situation is dangerous for China’s territorial ambitions. China may take Georgia’s ethnic unrest and splittism as a justification for acting even harsher to quell ethnic separatist dissent. This could lead to frentic pushes to bring Taiwan back and increase restrictions in T$$$bet and Xinjiang. According to Professor Robert Ross, “`the lesson for China in this is that we must be all-the-more sure that we control our ethnic groups’” since the separatist conflict “‘is all the result of the inability of Russian leaders to control their country, and allowing ethnic divisions to dominate” (Bloomberg).
* Others believe the US’ lackluster defense of Georgia’s provinces could embolden China to push more against Taiwan, if China believes the military risks of intervention and “punishment” would be minimal.
* China must be watching Russia’s stock market, which took a tumble in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Georgia (Also). China values its economy and an unstable economy could lead to internal chaos. How Russian stocks rebound in coming months will certainly determine, to some degree, China’s risk-calculus in pushing against Taiwan. The less Russia is “punished” for its invasion, the less risk China will see in placing military pressure on Taiwan.
It is a little early to say which of “China’s Lessons” will become the most prevalent. I would like to review this situation again in a month. Preliminarily, I would postulate that China will try to leverage this situation into a soft-power net bonus, working behind-the-scenes to promote Russia subsuming the provinces and promoting themselves as a stable destination for investment. Please feel free to discuss what you think in the comments section.
* Foreign Policy wrote the MOST authoritative article explaining how the Georgia situation could backfire against Russia. Not all of its assertions may happen, but Foreign Policy compiles many thoughtful ideas. (Jamestown further examines the mystery of Belarus’ limited support for Russia’s actions, and the Financial Times discusses more.)
* An interesting article on Bloomberg about China’s reaction to the Georgia situation. Prof. Robert Ross is a prime source.
* The Jamestown Foundation has their own take on the lessons to be learned from the Georgia situation (Link added September 6th).
* Georgia’s lessons for Taiwan. (Link from Brookings added September 6th).
* US Dept. of State background notes on Georgia.