03/24/2014 12:04 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

China's Policy Would Avoid 'Thucydides Trap' in Ukraine

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BEIJING - Retaking Crimea without firing one shot, Russian president Vladimir Putin has now decisively tipped the balance to his side against the West in Ukraine. A dilemma has landed at the doorstep of Western leaders: to sanction and start a new Cold War or to compromise? While the West has criticized China's principle of non-interference, this long-held position has proven to be more constructive and sensible.

China's take on the Ukrainian issue carries three core points. First, Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity must be respected. Second, the underlying causes of the crisis, complicated and deep-seated, have to be dealt with in a calm and restrained manner. Third, peaceful negotiation and not armed confrontation should be the way to find a solution.

It goes without saying that this position serves China's strategic interests. On the one hand, China, itself facing separatist issues in Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet, can't afford to openly support Russia and endorse the referendum in Crimea. On the other hand, the Chinese sympathizes with the Russians as the people in Ukraine and Russia do enjoy deep cultural and historical ties and current geopolitical connections.

As Henry Kissinger wrote recently: "The West must understand that, to Russia, Ukraine can never been just a foreign country. Russian history began in what was called Kievan-Rus. The Russian religion spread from there. Ukraine has been part of Russia for centuries, and their histories were intertwined before then."

China's position in fact more than merely self-serving. Remember what Chinese president Xi Jinping told The WorldPost recently? "The argument that strong countries are bound to seek hegemony does not apply to China," Xi posited. "This is not in the DNA of the country given our long historical and cultural background." Xi offered a historical reference to Sparta and Athens: "We all need to work together to avoid the Thucydides trap -- destructive tensions between an emerging power and established powers, or between established powers themselves."

Not only will a peacefully rising China not seek hegemony, but it will also use its unique political wisdom to help sooth Thucydides conflicts among big powers.

The Ukraine crisis is a case in point. Under Putin, Russia has become a re-emerging power and is poised to replay its traditional battles with the West. By absorbing Crimea, Russia is sending warnings to both Ukraine and the West. To the former: stay neutral in the diplomatic arena. To the latter: don't you dare draft Ukraine into NATO.

If the West chooses to tighten the screws in reaction, Russia isn't too worried about it in the near term. Militarily, the Russian troops are dominant in Eastern Europe. Economically, Western sanctions won't hurt Russia significantly. Trade between Russia and America was merely U.S. $30 billion in 2013, a decline of over 30 percent from the previous year. The EU, heavily dependent on Russian energy, has little room to act tough.

Granted, the West can isolate Russia further by turning the G-8 back to the G-7. Nevertheless, Moscow can also hit back by helping Iran to build a new nuclear plant. In the long term, confrontations with the West will cost Russia dearly though. It shall hinder the realization of the Russian goal of becoming a great power again. Putin is aware of this fact and it might have contributed to his decision of not going all the way to retake Ukraine.

"Should a new Cold War break out if Russia and the West fail to reach a compromise over Ukraine, the international strategic set up will also undergo tremendous changes. To America, this would break its pivot to Asia policy."

Should a new Cold War break out if Russia and the West fail to reach a compromise over Ukraine, the international strategic set up will also undergo tremendous changes.

To America, this would break its pivot to Asia policy. Washington has been relocating many important strategic resources to Asia in recent years and has gained some results. A new Cold War with Russia will force America to open another new front and thus disrupt the pivot. Washington won't be able to fight on two separate fronts in Asia and Europe at the same time. To counter the West, Russia will also likely move closer to China. China could benefit from this.

Amid rising tension over Ukraine between Russia and the West, China continues to adopt a neutral stance while being sympathetic to Moscow. This position serves both China's principles and interests. The fact of the matter is that Ukraine's crisis has no direct impact on China. Trade between China and Ukraine is too insignificant -- there's no direct flight between Beijing and Kiev -- to make any dent on China's economy.

Instead of criticizing China's neutrality in Ukraine's crisis, the West should try to understand the Chinese viewpoint. After all, the Chinese way is more conducive to avoiding the Thucydides trap.