Friday, August 8, was the holiest day in China's 2008 calendar.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W.
Bush were in Beijing (along with 54 other heads of state and 15
prime ministers) to watch the opening ceremonies of the Olympic
Games. Russia also invaded Georgia that day. China shrugged off the
Russian desecration of the sacred date, but the invasion sent
shudders through Russia's former Soviet republics.
Yet 20 days later, in the Tajik capital of Dushanbe, the heads
of state of China, Russia, and four former Soviet Central Asian
"Shanghai Cooperation Organization" (SCO) members pronounced their
"support for Russia's active efforts in promoting peace and
cooperation in that region." Their communiqué, known as the
"Dushanbe Declaration," included language decrying the "use of
armed force to resolve problems" and called for "respect of the
basic tents of international law." But was it a veiled slap at
Not likely, given the signature of Russia's titular President
Dmitri Medvedev on the document. The SCO operates by consensus and,
if he had wanted, Medvedev could have aborted the whole thing. Of
course, it is not clear exactly what happened. It could be that,
for whatever reason, this was the best deal Medvedev could get.
What is clear, however, is that in the end, it was enough for
Medvedev to declare the backing of China and the other SCO states
for Russia's intervention. China has certainly not objected to his
The declaration is easily read as blaming the necessity for
Russia's military intercession on those who failed "to respect
every country's and every people's history and cultural
traditions," an allusion to Georgia's disregard for the "history
and cultural traditions" of its Abkhazian and South Ossetian
minorities. More in sorrow than in anger, the declaration recalled
that "not long ago, the members of this organization expressed deep
concern about tensions generated in the situation surrounding South
Ossetia, and called upon each relevant party to resolve peacefully
current problems through dialogue."
Despite these sentiments, Beijing was not "concerned" by
Moscow's muscular action on the day of the Olympics' opening
ceremony. This much was obvious at the summit meeting the following
day between Chinese President Hu Jintao and Russia's real
strongman, Premier Vladimir Putin. Without a trace of irony, Hu
praised China's relationship with its Russian "strategic
cooperative partner" as "advancing across the board precisely in
accordance with our commonly declared goals"-a full-throated
endorsement if ever there was one. Hu's comments were hardly
unusual; in view of their interlocking bilateral and multilateral
security treaties, the China-Russia relationship is what most would
call an "alliance." Tellingly, the unpleasantness in Georgia
was not mentioned in the front-page banner-headlined People's
Daily report of the Hu-Putin summit. Xinhua's lengthy report of
the invasion, datelined Moscow, was relegated to page 17 of the
People's Daily, and it blamed Georgia's oppression of the
Ossetians for necessitating the Russian action.
On Sunday, August 10, President Hu held another summit, this
time with President Bush, who had just come from a state-sponsored
Christian church service. Hu thanked Bush for his "support on many
occasions for the Beijing Olympics," praise that was reported on
the front page of the People's Daily, complete with banner
headline. According to Chinese state media, the two
discussed North Korea, Iran, Sudan, and Darfur. Yet the Chinese
press again failed to mention that Bush raised the matter of
Russia's aggression against its small neighbor. While White House
aides recalled that Bush and Hu had a "discussion of the issue of
Georgia," apparently the Chinese state media viewed such dialogue
A few days later (with the Olympics well under way), the
Georgian ambassador in Beijing sought China's intercession with
Russia. The Chinese foreign ministry stiff-armed the Georgians with
the following non-response: "Our position on the South Ossetia
issue is clear. We hope disputes can be resolved peacefully through
dialogue so as to achieve regional peace and stability."
Despite the Foreign Ministry's assurances, China's current
position on "the South Ossetian issue" is not clear. In
April 2006, China persuaded Georgia to abjure official relations
with Taiwan by, in turn, agreeing in a "Joint Statement of the two
presidents" that "Abkhazia and South Ossetia are internal affairs
of Georgia and should be properly handled through peaceful
negotiations based on respect of Georgia's state sovereignty
and territorial integrity."
That "Joint Statement," however, was only for foreigners-not
Chinese-to see. At the time, the People's Daily said
nothing of Georgia's territorial integrity, sovereignty, or
anything "peaceful" in its article reporting the Joint Statement,
nor can one find the text of the Joint Statement on the Chinese
Foreign Ministry's Chinese language web page.
Thus, on August 26, when Moscow announced its formal recognition
of Abkhazia's and South Ossetia's independence from Georgia, the
Chinese Foreign Ministry was only able to muster the following
The Chinese side expresses concern for the most recent changes
in the developing situation in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. We
understand the complicated history and the current situation of the
South Ossetia and Abkhazia issue. At the same time, based on the
Chinese side's consistent principled position on this sort of
issue, we hope that each of the relevant parties can satisfactorily
resolve the issue through dialogue and consultation.
Whatever China's position is, principled is not a word
to describe it. In marked contrast to the 2006 China-Georgia "Joint
Statement," this latest comment left out the words "peaceful,"
"territorial integrity," and "sovereignty," as if the earlier
communiqué was irrelevant.
On August 26, this writer asked Chinese diplomats why China's
rhetorical "adherence" to "principles" of "sovereignty,"
"territorial integrity," and "peaceful dialogue" had vanished as a
helpless state was invaded by China's military partner, Russia. The
least China could have done, this writer suggested, was repeat the
wording of the China-Georgia "Joint Statement." Would that have
been so difficult?
In response, the Chinese diplomats did not betray the slightest
"concern" that the independence of Georgia's breakaway regions
would set any precedent. Without a hint of irony-which would be
appropriate, given China's relentless opposition to similar votes
in Taiwan-the diplomats instead insisted on the right of the
Abkhazians and the South Ossetians to determine their own future
via a plebiscite. Indeed, China acquiesced to East Timor's
independence on the same grounds.
China's Expansionist Motivations
China would want to support its Russian partner's military
operations against Georgia for two reasons:
- China considers American and NATO moves to bring Georgia into
the network of Western security pacts as a threat to a close
Chinese partner; and
- China may want to preserve its options for taking similar
action beyond its own borders.
For those who believe China is not an "expansionist" state, one
should consider that China has active territorial claims on the
- Japan's Senkaku Islands;
- All islands, rocks, shoals and undersea resources in the South
China Sea (including those occupied by the Philippines, Vietnam
and, of course, Taiwan); and
- "The whole of what you [Indians] call the state of Arunachal
Pradesh," as the Chinese ambassador proclaimed in a nationwide
television broadcast in India.
This last claim caused quite a start among the million people in
Arunachal Pradesh-none of whom are ethnic Chinese. And, of course,
there is Taiwan itself. The Taiwanese, however, may now take some
glum consolation that at least their land is not the only territory
that Beijing covets beyond its borders.
The Georgian adventure is Russia's fight, and there is no need
for China to expend its diplomatic capital in the affair, which
explains why China's representative failed to speak up in the
United Nations Security Council last Thursday (August 28) on
Russia's behalf. Instead, China preferred to let South Africa and
Vietnam play that role. After several fatiguing weeks dealing with
Olympic-sized public relations fiascos, it suits China's diplomats
to sit back and let the Russians take the heat for their Caucasian
invasion. But in light of President Hu's assertion immediately
after the invasion that Beijing and Moscow are "advancing across
the board precisely in accordance with our commonly declared
goals," one should not expect major fissures in the great Eurasian
partnership of China and Russia.
John J. Tkacik,
Jr., is Senior Research Fellow in China, Taiwan, and
Mongolia Policy in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage
Article 9 of the "Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly
Cooperation Between the People's Republic of China and the Russian
Federation" reads: "When a situation arises in which one of the
contracting parties deems that peace is being threatened and
undermined or its security interests are involved or when it is
confronted with the threat of aggression, the contracting parties
shall immediately hold contacts and consultations in order to
eliminate such threats." A number of clauses mandating "military
and military technology cooperation" are salted throughout the
treaty. See "Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation
Between the People's Republic of China and the Russian Federation,"
signed July 16, 2001, issued in English on July 24, 2001, at http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/wjdt/2649/t15771.htm
(September 4, 2008).
first sentence of the report reads: "Georgia's large scale military
operations in South Ossetia over the past several days have enraged
Russia, and the latter is now in the process of increasing its
troop strength in South Ossetia." See Zhang Guangzheng, "Russia
Sends Troops to South Ossetia, Georgia Declares Wartime Posture,"
Renmin Ribao, August 10, 2008, p. 17, at http://paper.people.com.cn/rmrb/html/2008-08/10/content_76820.htm
(September 3, 2008).
a lengthy press briefing on the Bush-Hu meeting, aides mentioned
Georgia only once in passing. See Press release, "Press Briefing by
Press Secretary Dana Perino and Senior Director for East Asian
Affairs Dennis Wilder and Deputy National Security Advisor
Ambassador Jim Jeffrey," Office of the Press Secretary, August 10,
2008, at http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/
2008/08/20080810-4.html (September 3, 2008).
"Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang's Response to Reporter's
Question about Russia's Recognition of Abkhaz and South Ossetian
Independence," Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, August 27,
2008, at http://www.fmprc.gov.cn/chn/xwfw/fyrth/t469157.htm
(September 3, 2008).