Beijing’s Perspectives on the Russo-Georgian Conflict: Dilemma and Choices

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 17

Beijing’s reaction to the Russo-Georgian fiasco has remained muted since Russian tanks rumbled into Georgia on August 8, leading to the most serious standoff between the West and Russia in the post-Cold War era. In his meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev on August 27 at the Summit of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), President Hu Jintao simply reiterated that “all sides concerned (should) properly settle the issue through dialogue and coordination” [1]. Beijing’s ambiguous silence on the Russo-Georgian conflict and its aftermath reveals a dilemma China’s leaders have faced on the issue, a dilemma that is caused by the increasing incompatibility between Beijing’s commitment to external peace and its coercive effort to maintain internal stability under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

In Beijing’s Eyes

Beijing views the Russo-Georgian conflict and its aftermath from both geopolitical and domestic perspectives. Recognizing Moscow’s legitimate security concerns as the U.S.-led NATO expansion was pushing up to its nose after the collapse of the former Soviet Union, the ruling elites in Beijing were not unhappy to see Russia’s use of force in Georgia [2]. From Beijing’s point of view, the emerging tension between the United States and Russia, caused by the latter’s determination to roll back the U.S.-led NATO expansion in Russia’s backyard, will not only take off some pressure of the perceived American “hedging” against China’s rise, but also provide Beijing with certain leverage in dealing with both Washington and Moscow down the road.

It is also reassuring to Beijing that the Russo-Georgian fiasco exposed the limits of power of both America and Russia. Despite its outrage against Russia’s armed intrusion into an American ally in Caucasus, Washington has not been able (or willing) to back up its condemnation with any real actions, not only because the “war against terror” has overstretched the superpower, but also because Washington has failed to keep its European allies on the same page on this thorny issue. The implication that the mighty America is subjected to substantial constraints caused by its geopolitical disadvantage and difficulties in managing its alliances is undoubtedly in Beijing’s favor, as a rising China is becoming the center of economic, political and diplomatic dynamics in Asia.

On the other hand, Beijing is pleased to see that at the SCO Summit in Dushanbe, Moscow came on board with the other SCO members in a joint declaration that “any attempt to solve problems by merely resorting to force could not work and would only hinder a comprehensive settlement of local conflicts.” Echoing Beijing’s appeal for peace, the SCO Summit also “called on relevant parties to solve existing problems peacefully through dialogue …” (Xinhua News Agency, August 28). Moscow’s accommodative approach at the SCO Summit has reassured Beijing that Russia does not intend to undermine the SCO, of which a major goal is to contain the “separatist forces,” with its support to the separation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia. After all, it is not in the interests of either China or Russia to squabble over the Georgian issue in the SCO, which has become a Sino-Russian platform to hedge against America’s expansion into Central Asia after the September 11 attack.

Indeed, the SCO also embodies a sense of comradeship between Beijing and Moscow in their effort to check the “color revolution” instigated by Washington. Like Moscow, Beijing feels threatened by the democratization momentum generated after the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003, not just because all the states democratized through the “color revolution” – Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan – have become pro-West, but because their successes can inspire the Chinese people in their demands for political participation and freedom [3]. Thus, the CCP regime in Beijing was by no means disappointed at Russia’s ruthless hammering of a democratic Georgia.

Moreover, the Chinese media openly ridicules Georgian President Saakashvili for his “naive belief” that his American ally would come to his rescue [4]. Alleging that such belief had emboldened the Saakashvili government to crack down on pro-Russia South Ossetia, which in turn provoked Russia’s “devastating retaliation,” Beijing not only wishes to intimidate the “separatist forces” in and outside China (e.g., Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang) with Moscow’s use of force against Georgia, but also implies that these anti-Beijing “separatist forces” are but bargaining chips in the game between big players [5].

Beijing’s Concerns

As a rising power with an enormous stake in world peace and stability, China does have serious concerns about the Russo-Georgian conflict and its implications. To China’s leaders, Russia’s use of force against Georgia is not just “inappropriate,” but it sets a dangerous precedent in solving international disputes. A fundamental dilemma in China’s foreign policymaking is that while China’s rapid rise amidst globalization has quickly expanded its stakes into every corner of the world, China simply does not, and will not in the foreseeable future, have the global military capability to safeguard its interests overseas. Beijing’s solution to this dilemma is the “peaceful rise” strategy, which is aimed at maximizing China’s expansion by free-riding on the existing international security system, a system that is essentially based on the US-led security alliances in Europe and Asian-Pacific. By resorting to force to solve its dispute with Georgia, what Russia has seriously challenged is not just the US-led NATO but the existing international security system on which China is free-riding in order to continue its “peaceful rise.”

Secondly, although a manageable tension between Washington and Moscow may provide Beijing with some leverage, it is not in China’s interests to see this tension escalating into a massive standoff between the West and Russia. It is true that China had benefited tremendously in the U.S.-China-Russia strategic triangle in the 1980s, but nowadays the growing economic interdependence between China and the outside world on the one hand and China’s irrevocable integration into the world community on the other hand have left Beijing with little maneuvering room between the West and Russia should there be a global standoff between the two powers (and their allies). Rather, China could be held hostage by both sides, as China needs markets, capitals and technology from the West, while it has a growing appetite for Russia’s energy and other commodities.

Thirdly, as China becomes increasingly dependent on foreign oil and gas, an effective way to minimize its growing energy insecurity is to diversify supplies from overseas – that is exactly what Beijing has been trying to do under its “go out” strategy (China Brief, November 17). Given Russia’s massive oil and gas reserves, its dominance in oil-rich Caucasus (and Central Asia) would substantially intensify the limits of China’s options in securing energy supplies from overseas, making China vulnerable to both Washington, which dominates in the world energy market as well as the Middle East, and Moscow, which controls virtually half of the known energy resources on earth.

Last but not the least, Russia’s armed intrusion in Georgia is a gross act against China’s long-cherished principle of non-violation of state sovereignty and territorial integrity. Should such an act be unchecked (or even encouraged), Beijing would trap itself in a moral dilemma in both international and domestic affairs. After all, how can Beijing insist on the utmost inviolability of its own “national sovereignty and territorial integrity” without opposing (at least verbally) Russia’s armed violation of Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity? More importantly, Russia’s sponsorship of the “independence” of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia has exposed Beijing’s vulnerability on this issue, given the increasing international awareness and concerns over Beijing’s coercive efforts to put down the demands for separation (or even independence) in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Taiwan.

Beijing’s Approach

In general, Beijing’s approach toward the Russo-Georgian conflict, albeit ambiguous so far, is to seek to manage, rather than solve, the issue. This approach is based on the reality that the tension between the West and Russia on the Georgian issue will linger on in the foreseeable future. The on-going US presidential election and inconsistency (and even conflicts) between Washington and its European allies (and among themselves) have virtually frozen decision making on both sides of the Atlantic on this thorny issue. Meanwhile, despite a remarkable surge in Russia’s power and confidence (resulting mainly from the skyrocketing energy price) and its non-compromising stance on the Georgian issue, it is beyond Moscow’s capability (and/or willingness) to reactivate a Cold-War style faceoff with the West, not only because Russia has been irrevocably integrated into the world economic system, but also because Moscow still is struggling to pull itself out of the ideological and moral bankruptcy of the former Soviet Union. Indeed, it is hard to imagine that an economically interdependent and ideologically isolated Russia could stand (or be willing to stand) an overall showdown with the West.

Beijing’s management approach is also based on its calculation that while a manageable tension between the US-led West and Russia can surely provide Beijing with leverages in advancing its interests with both sides, a solution (especially a forced one) would either compel Beijing to take sides – should the issue be overwhelmed (and therefore “solved”) by the total breakdown of Russo-West relations, or deprive Beijing of a lucrative opportunity to drive a bargain with both sides – should the issue be solved through a compromising reconciliation between the West and Russia.

With such a management approach, it is predictable that Beijing will insist on a peaceful solution through “dialogues (between the parties directly involved in the conflict) and coordination (among the players with stakes in the event).” Specifically, Beijing will strive to achieve three policy objectives in order to ensure the outcomes desirable for China on the Russo-Georgian conflict and its aftermath.

Beijing’s first policy priority is to confine the Russo-Georgian conflict to a regional issue, preventing it from spilling over into international affairs. Thus, although China’s leaders could be indifferent or even supportive to the diplomatic or economic actions taken unilaterally by the European countries or United States against Russia, Beijing will be reluctant to endorse any proposals for a UN resolution on the issue, let alone UN imposed sanctions against Russia. Beijing takes such a position not because of its alleged sympathy toward Moscow, but because China would be caught in an awkward situation should the Russo-Georgian conflict escalate into a global issue on which Beijing would have to clarify its position as well as commitment. Moreover, as long as the Georgian issue is handled in a regional perspective, China can minimize its responsibility (since China is not in the region) but maximize the benefits (with leverages in dealing with both the U.S.-led West and Russia). Meanwhile, Beijing can explain to the home audience that the separation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia from Georgia is a result of political and/or territorial conflict between Russia and Georgia, rather than the demand for self-determination.

Second, in order to isolate the Russo-Georgian conflict in international affairs, it is important for Beijing to prevent any linkages between Russia’s intrusion in Georgia and the other international issues wherein Moscow has a role to play. As discussed above, Beijing has already succeeded in blocking the Georgian issue out of the SCO Summit despite pressure from Moscow. Meanwhile, China’s leaders must feel relieved to see Russia’s continuous effort to join the WTO and its caution to avoid any public statements on the (potential) linkage between Russia’s energy supply to Europe and its tension with the West on the Georgian issue. Predictably, Beijing will try to promote engagement with Russia on major global issues (e.g., North Korea, Iran, anti-terrorism, non-proliferation of weapons of massive destruction, energy, environment, and transnational crimes). To Beijing, as long as the Russo-Georgian conflict is delinked with the other global issues in which Russia is actively involved, the tension between the West and Russia would be more manageable and, more importantly, it would be more difficult for the world community to impose a sanction against Russia.

Third, with the Russo-Georgian conflict being confined to a regional issue and isolated from the other issues in international affairs, Beijing would not be opposed to being a broker between Moscow and Washington (and the West in general) over the Georgian issue. Such a position will not only enable Beijing to bring its leverages into full play, but also help China enhance its international status and influence with little responsibility for the final outcomes. In this regard, it is not hard to see why Beijing has remained ambiguous toward Russia’s military intrusion in Georgia – in a game wherein all the other players have been forced to show their hands, Beijing has already gained a substantial advantage by keeping its cards unknown to others.

Notes

1. “Hu Jintao Meets with Russian President Medvedev,” issued by the Minsitry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, August 28, 2008. http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/wjdt/wshd/t469750.htm.

2. See, among others, Wang Yizhou, “What Should China do in the Georgian crisis,” September 1, 2008. http://www.chinaelections.org/NewsInfo.asp?NewsID=133777. This author (Jing HUANG) had discussions with senior officials and experts in China on August 10-11 and two senior Chinese diplomats in Singapore on August 25 on the Georgian crisis. It is obvious that although Beijing has cautiously avoided any public comments on the issue, there are shared sympathy toward and “appreciation” of Russia’s action against Georgia among the ruling elites in Beijing.

3. Sun Jinzhong and Hou Yongmei, “’Color revolution’ reveals changes in America’s strategy,” Xinhua News Agency, April 4, 2005. http://news.xinhuanet.com/comments/2005-04/04/content_2783315.htm

4. See, among others, Chen Dawei, “Georgia will lose more by challenging Russia with its 2.7 million troops,” The Liberation Daily, August 11, 2008. http://military.people.com.cn/GB/8221/72028/131513/131514/7647597.html; Teng Jianwei, “ Should the European map be drawn by blood again?” People’s Daily, August 31, 2008. http://military.people.com.cn/GB/42969/58520/7751100.html

5. It is intriguing that some leading American experts on international security also send out the similar message. See Jeffrey Bader and Douglas Paal, “Georgia’s Lessons for Taiwan,” Far Eastern Economic Review, September 2, 2008. http://www.feer.com/international-relations/2008/september/Georgias-Lessons-for-Taiwan