Ukraine:Will Beijing display ‘Chinese wisdom’ to help end war?

March 08, 2022 09:30
Photo: Reuters

However the war in Ukraine ends, Russia will be a loser and international pariah. And China, unless it stops sitting on its hands, will have lost a major opportunity to show itself as a world leader.

Vladimir Putin, the Russian leader, held talks with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on Feb. 4, the day the winter Olympics opened in Beijing, and signed a joint statement in which Russia and China hailed a new era in international relations where “a trend has emerged towards redistribution of power in the world.”

Less than three weeks later, Russia invaded Ukraine, violating the UN Charter. China had for decades posed as the champion of national sovereignty and territorial integrity but it kept quiet when Putin violated these supposedly sacrosanct principles.

Subsequently, China has been oddly passive as the war escalated, with a humanitarian disaster looming while the Russian advance was slowed by spirited Ukrainian resistance.

Much of the world is appalled by Russia, as was reflected in the United Nations General Assembly, when 141 nations voted against it, with only 4 nations voting with Russia. China was one of 35 countries that abstained.

The United States and Europe have been united in support of Ukraine but China has refused to join in such efforts. In fact, China blames the eastward expansion of NATO since the 1990s for Russian feelings of insecurity.

Of course, China looks after its own interests first and foremost. But, especially under its current leadership, Beijing has promised to play a responsible role as a major power. In fact, Xi has repeatedly spoken about bringing “Chinese wisdom” to bear to help solve problems facing mankind and to “keep contributing Chinese wisdom and strength to global governance.” Now is the time to apply such wisdom.

Other countries look to China to play a major role. On March 1, the Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, told Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi that he looked forward to China’s mediation efforts. On March 4, Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, said in a media interview that western powers cannot mediate between Russia and Ukraine. “There is no alternative,” Borrell said. “It must be China.”

So, a key European leader was saying that China alone could play this vital role of mediation. The next day, March 5, the Chinese Mission to the European Union issued a statement.

“The Chinese side,” it said, “supports all efforts that are conducive to de-escalation and political settlement of the situation and opposes any move that does no good to the pursuit of diplomatic settlement and adds fuel to the fire.”

It added: “We encourage Russia and Ukraine to have direct negotiations. We also encourage the US, NATO and the EU to engage in equal-footed dialogue with Russia, face up to the frictions and problems accumulated over the years, follow the principle of indivisible security and seek to build a balanced, effective and sustainable European security mechanism.”

It is a fine statement on what should happen, but it says nothing of what China is willing to do to bring this about. In it, China did not say it would play a mediator’s role, but it did not say no either. China is still sitting on the fence.

Russia and Ukraine are holding direct negotiations but not making much progress. Can China help to make these bilateral talks more productive? The immediate need is to stop the fighting on the ground.

As for an “equal footed dialogue,” that may well be a good idea but that is a much more long-term effort. Can China help to make that happen and, if and when the dialogue does take place, ensure that it is productive?

Ukraine’s current existential crisis reflects an ironic twist of history. In 1994, when Ukraine voluntarily gave up its nuclear weapons, all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council issued security assurances to Ukraine, which turned over its weapons to Russia. Today, it is Russia that is threatening Ukraine’s very existence.

The United States, Britain and France are assisting Ukraine through NATO.

China can, if it wishes, cite its Budapest statement of December 1994 in which it offered security assurances, and volunteer to do what it can to help end the current crisis.

The fact that Putin has put Russia’s nuclear forces on heightened alert provides a justification for China to renew its assurance to Ukraine that it would not suffer for having unilaterally abandoned nuclear weapons 28 years ago.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.