Why Obama is happy with China’s neutrality on Ukraine


When it comes to Russia, the United States says it wants China to keep doing what it’s doing.

That’s the message President Obama took to Chinese President Xi Jinping when the pair met on the sidelines of a nuclear summit Monday in The Hague.


China, a traditional ally of Moscow, has so far attempted to remain neutral in the dispute over Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea, an ethnically Russian area of Ukraine.

The Chinese abstained from a United Nations Security Council meeting to condemn a secession referendum earlier this month, and the White House said Chinese officials signaled their support for a solution that “upholds Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” during talks with American officials.

During the meeting with Xi on Monday, Obama urged the Chinese leader to continue voicing support for those principles. The administration hopes the meeting will underscore Beijing’s tacit disapproval, and again illustrate Russia’s isolation from even its traditional allies.

The Chinese have long professed a policy of non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs, as well as strong support for internationally recognized borders.

It’s a policy borne from self-interest: if Beijing were to endorse Crimea’s referendum to secede from Ukraine, it could open the door for a similar debate about China’s control over Tibet and Taiwan. 

The Chinese are also upset about the effect the Russian incursion has had on the Ukrainian economy, where Chinese businesses have invested heavily in recent years.

Foreign policy experts suggested the U.S. could not realistically hope for more, considering the persistent ties between China and Russia.

“Their abstention in the Security Council resolution is sort of indicative of the approach they’re likely to take, which is, ‘Please don’t ask us questions about that,’ ” said Jeremy Shapiro, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. “And I don’t think the president is going to be able to get them out of that mode.”

Still, Shapiro said the visual of Obama and Xi meeting “and not having any visible disagreements on Ukraine will be moderately useful, just as the abstention is moderately useful.”