THE BLOG
03/17/2014 05:05 pm ET Updated May 17, 2014

China, Russia and the Crimea: A Moment of Truth for Beijing

China is not a central actor in the Ukraine/Crimea crisis. But Russia's invasion and likely annexation of Crimea highlights Beijing's dilemma trying to balance between East and West, authoritarianism and democracy, Great Power politics and liberal internationalism.

How to understand today's China? Is it still a political dictatorship despite its increasingly market-based economy? Or an emerging liberal economy and society whose fragility is contained by residual Communist party authoritarianism? Today the answer is not a foregone conclusion but a genuine debate, which is in itself a matter for optimism.

Faced with Vladimir Putin's theft of Crimea, Beijing must decide whether to take a clear position or try to elude responsibility. Is China with or against Russia? Is it complicit in Great Power politics or a defender of national sovereignty against imperialists?

In practical terms, China's long-term economic and political relationships with the West are primary; its Great Power alliance with Russia is secondary.

But not all international interests boil down to economics. Domestic politics and foreign policy are not merely economics in disguise. If China is still fundamentally a political dictatorship then alliance with authoritarian Russia is first.

Therein is the significance of the Ukraine/Crimea crisis for China.

At the UN Security Council Beijing has historically voted with Russia, against the U.S., Britain and France, to veto or dilute resolutions threatening sanctions or outside intervention against regimes such as Bashar Assad's Syria, Gadafi's Libya or, in the 1990s, Milosevic's Serbia. The two governments cite the international law principle of "non-interference in the internal affairs of sovereign states." Alleging Western hypocrisy and double standards, Putin, as an indirect defense of his Crimea policy, lists the invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq and the intervention in Libya in 2011 as examples of Western violations of sovereignty.

Beijing may well be committed to international law but raison d'état, national interest, is the bottom line as with any country. Sometimes international law and national interest coincide, other times not. China like Russia has restive border areas -- Russia has the Caucasus, China has Xinxiang. Preventing legitimation of the principle of outside interference is a mutual interest, thus Beijing and Moscow vote together.

But major Chinese economic interests are also at stake in Russia's reemergence as an expansionist power. Russia and also Kazakhstan are major suppliers of China's energy needs. Kazakhstan has Russian minorities in its northwest and is thus a potential focus of Russian intimidation on the Putin principle of protecting Russia's historical interests and Russian minorities in other states.

In addition, Ukraine itself has surprising relevance for Chinese development. When ousted President Viktor Yanukovych stopped the Ukraine/EU "association" trade agreement in November, China was an indirect winner. In August, Ukraine and China had signed a huge deal in which China, in exchange for investment and technical aid, got 50-year leases on rights to below-market prices on yields of 3 million hectares of prime agricultural land in Eastern Ukraine. In addition, China, the world's largest energy consumer, will profit from investment in Ukraine's coal, oil and gas industries, starting with a 2013 loan of $3.7 billion at 19 years.

So Beijing now faces a choice: either endorsing Russia's violation of the principle of non-interference in Crimea or opposing Putin's power play in the service of national interests and to some extent international law.

China's strategy as usual in international crises is to keep a low profile, avoid becoming involved as a central player. But the minimal signs from Beijing's leadership are that they are not supporting Putin.

Chinese and Russian foreign ministers spoke on March 3. Moscow said that the two countries "have coinciding views on the situation in Ukraine." A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman gave a different summary: "China always sticks to the principle of non-interference in any country's internal affairs and respects the independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity of Ukraine."

In telephone calls with President Obama and German chancellor Angela Merkel a week ago President Xi Jinping counseled a political solution based on diplomacy, that the crisis had to be resolved "on the basis of international law" and "with respect for Ukraine's territorial integrity."

Unless there is a last-minute breakthrough, Russia will soon annex Crimea or dominate a semi-independent version of it, under cover of a snap referendum this Sunday called by a puppet Crimean Parliament and municipal government installed in Sevastopol.

In any case, Putin has backed China's leaders into an unwelcome choice, a moment of truth. China may ultimately get more Russian oil and gas from Russia but Putin has burned his political bridge to Beijing.