BEIJING: As world leaders scramble to shape events in Ukraine, China has stood by unable even to articulate its stance, exposing an inconsistent approach to foreign affairs despite its fast-growing global interests and stature, analysts say.
Beijing can partly blame the lag on its rapid ascent into the top tier of international heavyweights. But it faces huge pressure to catch up fast, both from other governments and its own increasingly far-flung nationals and companies.
“Welcome to the real world,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, a China expert and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
“China by now has global interests but is not a global strategist or global player. ... [It] is not the one that initiates and tries to drive the outcome,” he said.
Although China aspires to greater global standing, it pursues narrow goals overseas as long as its core concerns are not involved, letting its ally and fellow U.N. Security Council member Russia take the lead on crises such as the conflict in Syria while it zeroes in on business deals.
It is a ruthlessly pragmatic approach that has seen its influence and commercial presence soar not only in its “near abroad” of Central and Southeast Asia, but also in Africa – a continent where it has become a major player – and further afield.
Meanwhile, its Foreign Ministry tends toward nonspecific bromides, urging “calm” here, “restraint” there and a “political solution” elsewhere.
“But they have interests now that force them to get beyond those broad statements,” Lieberthal said. “They have to make commitments, they have provide security, they have to do contingency planning.”
On Ukraine, where Moscow has deployed troops in Crimea while the West backs an opposition that is now in government, Beijing has found itself struggling to take a stand, stymied by competing interests.
For years it has sought to solidify ties with Russia, successor to the Soviet Union, which was once a brother communist state until a bitter split, followed by rapprochement.
President Xi Jinping made it his first destination after taking office last year and again last month, attending the Sochi Winter Olympics while Western leaders stayed away.
But Beijing also vehemently urges “noninterference” in other countries’ domestic affairs, in part to facilitate trade with unsavoury regimes – but especially to discourage foreign support for popular uprisings.
It regularly brandishes the concept to ward off criticism from Western powers of its policies in its Tibet and Xinjiang regions, where ethnic minorities complain of repression, feeding political dissent.
“China has long maintained a principle of noninterference in internal affairs and respects Ukraine’s independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the Foreign Ministry said on its website this week.
“There are reasons that the Ukrainian situation is what it is today,” it added, in what Niu Jun, a professor of international affairs at Peking University, interpreted as a reference to Russia’s long-standing links with Crimea.
The events in Ukraine were “very inconvenient” for Beijing, he said. “That’s why they came out with a statement nobody can understand.”
When pressed to clarify whether Beijing supported Moscow’s actions or considered them a form of interference, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang refused to elaborate. But he said Friday that China would oppose the imposition of sanctions.
On its website, the ministry said China’s top diplomat, Yang Jiechi, told U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice that a resolution must “take full care of the legitimate rights of the Ukrainian people” – without specifying what they were.
Yet Beijing’s global ambitions are undeniable. Xi’s slogan since taking office – the “Chinese Dream” – evokes the widely held idea that, as a centuries-old civilization that once led the world in achievements, the Middle Kingdom is poised to reclaim the center stage it deserves.
Its presence is expanding from the Middle East to Africa to Latin America, even in conflict zones such as Afghanistan and Iraq, to acquire the energy and resources needed to feed the world’s largest population and second-biggest economy.
That brings added pressure to protect China’s supply lanes, companies and workers popping up worldwide.
Two-way trade with Ukraine, not a major partner, hit $11 billion last year, according to customs figures.
Beijing is starting to recognize the benefits of getting involved, said Jia Qingguo, a professor of international studies at Peking University, citing a debate over whether it might have prevented the bloody 2011 Western-backed uprising in oil supplier Libya by seeking to persuade late dictator Moammar Gadhafi to compromise.
But it needed to build up its foreign policy know-how, he added, and was still figuring out its approach to the world as it adjusts to its development from a poor to a powerful nation.
“China does not have a broader strategy. Its foreign policy behavior is often ambiguous and sometimes incoherent,” he said.
“China is both a developing country and a developed country; a weak country and a strong country; a poor country and a rich country; an ordinary country and a superpower,” he added.
“As a result, its interests are also in contradiction.”