Russia’s Move in Crimea Sends China a Dangerous Message
Policy + Politics

Russia’s Move in Crimea Sends China a Dangerous Message

Reuters/Pichi Chuang

The U.S. reaction to Russia’s incursion into Ukraine will have consequences halfway around the world, where China is engaged in a territorial dispute with Japan. 

“They are watching very closely what’s happening with Ukraine,” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) said yesterday during a speech at Google Inc.’s office in Washington. “They are gauging: What are the consequences and what is the price in the 21st century of executing on illegitimate territorial claims?” 

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“And if the price is not too high, we may soon find ourselves with a similar territorial conflict in the Pacific, except there we actually have defense agreements with these countries,” said Rubio, a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and potential presidential candidate for 2016. “That kind of territorial crisis will make Ukraine look like child’s play.” 

First, a little bit of history. Japan annexed the uninhabited land, which it calls the Senkaku Islands, in 1895 following the Sino-Japanese War. China claims historical rights, dating back to the Ming Dynasty, to what it calls the Diaoyu Islands. 

The U.S. security agreement with Japan applies to administered territories such as the disputed islands, meaning the U.S. military would be expected to help Japan defend the land in the event of a conflict. For that reason, China is looking to disrupt Japan’s commitment to administering the islands, and military action is one way to do that.

“Crimea offers a very clear lesson to Beijing: force works,” said Chris Griffin, executive director of the Foreign Policy Initiative in Washington. “What Putin is demonstrating is that, yes, you can take territory by force, which is exactly what the Chinese want to do and why they’re watching.”

He said if the U.S. doesn’t come to the aid of Ukraine, allies such as Japan may question their own ties to the world’s military superpower.

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So far the U.S. has responded to Russia’s invasion of Crimea by offering $1 billion in energy subsidies, slapping sanctions on high-ranking Russian officials, and issuing travel bans for individuals allegedly involved with the incursion. Last week the House passed a measure that would provide Ukraine with $1 billion in loan guarantees.

Tensions between China and Japan have shown no sign of abating. Two days ago both countries had military jets in the vicinity of the islands, and each side said they have no intention of backing down.

“There will be consequences for a tyrannical government that invades its neighbors,” Rubio said in reference to Russia, though his remarks could just as easily have applied to China. “Russia’s not the only country on earth with territorial claims that are illegitimate.”

Still, it’s not an apples-to-apples comparison. With no native population living on the disputed islands, China cannot claim protection of residents like Russia is in Crimea.

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