Sieren’s China: Beijing’s diplomatic role in the Ukraine crisis

APEC Gipfel Wladimir Putin und Xi Jinping 11.11.2014 Peking

When it comes to the Ukraine crisis, Europe and Washington have two very different sets of interests. German Chancellor Angela Merkel was in Washington on Monday to discuss strategies with US President Barack Obama, but the visit did little to narrow the gulf between their respective stances.

China has clout in the dispute between the West and Russia and should use it, argues DW columnist Frank Sieren, because it doesn't want the Ukraine crisis to escalate.

These go far beyond the standard "good cop, bad cop" game: While Merkel rejects supplying weapons to Ukraine, Obama is under increasing pressure to do just that. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier hit the nail on the head a few days ago when he said that Russia remains Europe's neighbor in good times and in bad. It's not America's neighbor. It's more like its arch rival.

The US and Europe have long disagreed about sanctions against Russia, too. Berlin and Washington settled on a compromise whereby they isolate Russia politically and economically by tightening sanctions, issuing threats designed to push Putin into a corner, but this is unlikely to be effective.

It's the sort of approach that belongs to the bipolar system that existed in the 20th century, when the world was split down unbreachable ideological lines and everyone was always accusing their enemies of fanning the flames of disputes. It was no way to solve conflicts. Its myopic world view has the West wondering why its sanctions still haven't made Putin come to his senses.

BRICS countries protect their own interests

This is due primarily to China, but also the rest of the BRIC countries. They have distanced themselves from the West's Russia policy because they have their own interests to look after.

Even if the West last year suspended Russia from the G8 club – which includes leading western nations and Japan – Moscow still has its place at the BRICS table, along with Brazil, China, India and South Africa. None of these countries will betray Putin in his hour of need. Contrary to what the West would like to think, the BRICS countries cannot be reined in.

For Putin this makes a crucial difference: it gives him a choice. The Chinese-Russian relationship has never been so good. So good, in fact, that next spring, joint military maneuvers will take place at sea. China is also one of the biggest customers of Russia's raw materials. Cooperation in business is also growing. In the past year China and Russia have signed deals for infrastructure projects worth more than $1 billion, and they're not just working on a joint railway line - they are also working towards doing business without using the US dollar.

The world is now multi-polar

The world no longer consists of two blocks. Merkel seems to understand this better than Obama. The new global situation is decisive for Putin's room to maneuver. Only a third party that Russia is somehow dependent on could really call Putin to order. And that third party is not Germany, but China. When Beijing speaks, Putin has to listen. When Obama speaks, he can react tactically. He knows that a military confrontation is unlikely because Europeans won't play along. And it is in the interest of China that the conflict between Russia and the West in Ukraine does not escalate. Even if momentarily it is the third party benefitting because European policy has pushed Russia into China's arms.

Still, China hesitates to bang its fist. But it has one big advantage: Its loyalties lie with neither Russia nor the West.

DW columnist Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for 20 years

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