By Minxin Pei
FORTUNE -- For now, Russian president Vladimir Putin has elected not to escalate tensions with the West over Ukraine, giving some hope for a peaceful solution to the political crisis in Kiev.
Until he blinked on March 4, Putin had been engaged in a game of chicken with the West, threatening to use military force to restore the ousted former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. There are many reasons why Putin chose not to test the will of the West for now. One of them is Russia's near-total isolation -- Putin's brinksmanship has received no endorsement from his friends or allies.
In particular, Russia must be sorely disappointed by China's lack of support. Since the crisis began in late February, China has hedged its bets cautiously. In vaguely worded official statements, Beijing has not taken sides in this fight. Instead of backing Russia's actions, China merely expressed its wishes that the crisis be resolved peacefully. In a phone call with Vladimir Putin on March 4, Chinese president Xi Jinping said nothing that could be construed as support for Putin.
Putin's decisions have likely been shaped by potential retaliation from the West and the likely disastrous consequences of military operations in Ukraine, but international isolation could also have persuaded him, on the margins, to rein in his recklessness. In the case of China, one could argue that Putin might have been emboldened had he received an explicit, strong endorsement from Xi.
China's reluctance to take a side stems from a professed principle of "non-interference" in the domestic affairs of other sovereign nations. With its poor human rights record and growing ethnic unrest, Beijing has consistently rebuffed external criticism by evoking this principle. China would be foolish to change its long-held position to please Russia.
To be sure, ideologically, Beijing is on Moscow's side. The ruling Chinese Communist Party views democracy with fear and hostility. In its coverage of the Ukrainian crisis, the official Chinese media has displayed a predictable bias against the pro-democracy forces. The official statements issued by the Chinese government also imply that the West is responsible for fomenting revolution in Kiev.
China and Russia have formed a so-called strategic partnership. On the international stage, especially at the United Nations Security Council, where both nations have veto power, the two countries frequently take similar positions. For example, on Iran and Syria, Russia and China have consistently opposed Western nations' policies.
While its anti-democratic instincts and its partnership with Russia should incline the Chinese government to come to Putin's aid, Beijing is ultimately run by pragmatists who believe they are likely to lose more by taking an explicit pro-Russia stance.
Aside from their rhetorical commitment to "non-interference" -- which in reality is more of a diplomatic fig leaf (since China has often honored this principle in breach) -- Chinese leaders are focused on geopolitical concerns and economic interests when it comes to Ukraine.
Xi and his colleagues understand that they would pay a huge price for joining Russia in confronting the West in this case. China has no wish to antagonize the United States needlessly in a dangerous situation in which it has no real geopolitical interest. And Beijing knows that Washington could make it pay dearly by giving more support to Japan in the ongoing Sino-Japanese territorial disputes.
Furthermore, to the Chinese, Putin has been an untrustworthy partner, who has played geopolitical hardball with Beijing since he came to power in 2000. He has restricted Russian exports of advanced weapons to China (while selling such material to Vietnam and India). Russia also failed to deliver on its promise of providing China with more energy resources.
China would also stand to lose a great deal if it placed a very public bet on Russia and the Yanukovych regime that went sour. Even though Chinese trade with Ukraine is a modest $10 billion a year, it has ambitious plans to make huge investments in Ukraine's energy, infrastructure, and agricultural sectors. In 2013, the China Development Bank made a loan of $3.7 billion to the Ukrainian ministry of energy, and another Chinese state entity signed an agreement with the Ukrainian State Food and Grain Corp. to invest $2.6 billion in the agricultural sector. During Yanukovych's visit to Beijing in December 2013, the two countries signed more than 20 contracts and memoranda worth over $30 billion.
These investments and future business opportunities would be at risk should the West-backed interim government in Kiev prevail in this crisis. For Beijing, the most prudent policy on the crisis in Ukraine is to sit on the fence and let the dust settle.
Minxin Pei is the Tom and Margot Pritzker '72 Professor of Government and a non-resident senior fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States
Top Communist Party leaders are expected to discuss corruption and the environment at an upcoming retreat. But actions speak louder than words.
By Scott Cendrowski, writer
FORTUNE -- China's Communist Party is spending this weekend in meetings. Important ones, maybe even historic, or at least so say the state press. The four-day event that starts Saturday in Beijing is officially called the Third Plenary Session of the 18th Communist Party of MORENov 6, 2013 12:17 PM ET
While it is understandable that investors around the world are rooting for political resolve and policy clarity from Beijing, we should also be realistic about what Chinese leaders can actually deliver.Oct 29, 2013 10:44 AM ET
China's new leadership, which has been in office for 10 months, is attacking the nation's social media channels, a depressing -- yet unsurprising -- turn of events.Sep 12, 2013 1:50 PM ET
The Chinese government is sending a clear message that ambitious officials trying to get to the top by unconventional means will end up in jail like Bo Xilai.Jul 26, 2013 2:25 PM ET
The breadth of China's recently released economic agenda has led some observers of China to call it radical. But it's too early to celebrate. Here's why.May 28, 2013 1:38 PM ET
Xi Jinping's legacy will not depend on whether he saved more lives in Lushan or contained the H7N9 bird flu, but on whether he can make China more open, democratic, and livable than it is today.Apr 26, 2013 10:24 AM ET
In spite of the superficial warmth exhibited at the Moscow summit, China and Russia are deeply wary of each other. The Xi-Putin play date was to show Washington it should watch its back.Mar 28, 2013 5:00 AM ET
The only good news coming from the pending leadership changes is the near certainty of the end of China's one-child policy.Mar 8, 2013 3:11 PM ET
Until China's Communist Party can convince the people that it values China's national well-being above its own survival, nobody should take its promises seriously.Feb 15, 2013 3:13 PM ET
|The Deep Web you don't know about|
|Five predictions for the World Wide Web that were way, way, way off|
|Why casino workers hate Obamacare|
|Social Security is the best deal|
|House panel to investigate GM response to problem linked to 13 deaths|