March 11, 2014 3:38 am JST

China may hold key to Ukraine deadlock

EIJI FURUKAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer

TOKYO -- China has not taken sides outwardly on the Ukraine crisis, hiding behind its noninterventionist rhetoric. But it is grasping for ways to influence the events in the country, a key source of grain and military gear.

     Last December, after Ukraine broke off preparations to sign an association agreement with the European Union, then-President Viktor Yanukovych flew to China to meet with counterpart Xi Jinping. The two leaders cemented a "strategic partnership" between their countries, with China even promising to shelter Ukraine under its nuclear umbrella.

     Crimea, now in Russia's grip, occupies a critical juncture along the modern-day Silk Road that Xi envisions linking China and Europe across Central Asia and the Black Sea. China plans to invest some $3 billion in port facilities and other infrastructure in the southern part of the peninsula. It had also been working on a deal to lease 3 million hectares of Ukrainian farmland, potentially one of China's biggest foreign holdings of soil for feeding its masses.

     Ukraine is also a key exporter of arms to China. It sold China the old Soviet warship that was rebuilt into the Middle Kingdom's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. In addition, Ukrainian companies help maintain Chinese fighter jet engines. Xi and Yanukovych discussed joint aircraft development at their summit in December.

     No surprise, then, that the Chinese government saw Yanukovych's ouster last month as a setback that threw its bilateral agreements with the Ukraine into doubt. Beijing seems to have feared the new government in Kiev would move the nation closer to Europe, which has restricted arms exports to China since the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

     Russian President Vladimir Putin and Xi have discussed the Ukraine situation since December, according to a source in the Russian government, who says that "China sides with Russia's position."

     The West is also reaching out to China on the Ukraine crisis. U.S. President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel phoned Xi on Sunday and Monday.

     While China has voiced opposition to Western sanctions against Russia in response to its intervention in Crimea, it has avoided expressions of support for Moscow's actions. Like the rest of the world, Beijing has no way of knowing whether Russia will succeed in peeling the peninsula away from Ukraine. At a news conference Saturday, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi described China's position as "just and objective."

     "We will play a constructive role in bringing about a political settlement," Wang added.

     Cui Hongjian, a senior research fellow at the China Institute of International Studies, said, "China and Russia clearly have different visions of Ukraine's future."

     While treading cautiously, aware of both its geopolitical rivalry with the U.S. and its cooperation with Russia, "China is acting with an eye to eventual relations with the new government" in Kiev, Cui added.

     The EU has sought out China, among other countries, as a possible partner in financial aid for Ukraine. China can also influence possible action by the United Nations Security Council, where it holds a veto. Beijing's weight could conceivably tilt the tug of war between Russia and the West in either direction.