Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based freelance journalist.
On Feb. 4, the day the Winter Olympics opened in Beijing, Russian President Vladimir Putin held talks with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. In a joint statement, Russia and China hailed a new era in international relations where “a trend has emerged towards a redistribution of power in the world.”
Less than three weeks later, Russia invaded Ukraine, in violation of the UN Charter.
China had for decades positioned itself as a champion of national sovereignty and territorial integrity but it kept oddly quiet when Mr. Putin violated these supposedly sacrosanct principles. And now, with Russia looking increasingly like a loser and an international pariah, China could itself miss a major opportunity to show itself as a world leader – unless it stops sitting on its hands.
Much of the world has been appalled by Mr. Putin’s invasion as was reflected in a vote in the United Nations General Assembly, when 141 nations called for Russia to immediately end its military operations in Ukraine, with only four countries voting with Russia. China was one of 35 countries that abstained.
The United States and Europe have been united in their support for 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, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi noting that the “situation in Ukraine” has emerged because of “a variety of reasons.” And on Monday, while continuing to call for peace talks, Mr. Wang affirmed that the “no limits” bilateral relationship between Beijing and Moscow remains “rock solid,” regardless of “how precarious and challenging the international situation.”
Of course, China looks after its own interests first and foremost. But Beijing has also promised to play a responsible role as a major power – especially under its current leadership. In fact, Mr. 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.
Indeed, other countries are looking to China to play a major role. On March 1, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told Mr. Wang 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,” Mr. Borrell said. “It must be China.”
The next day the Chinese Mission to the European Union replied. “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 U.S., 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.
Russia and Ukraine are holding direct negotiations but they are not making much progress, particularly in the crucial task of ending the fighting on the ground. Can Mr. Xi and his government help to make these bilateral talks more productive, while maintaining their friendship with Mr. Putin?
As for an “equal-footed dialogue,” that may well be a good idea but that is a much longer-term project. Can China help to make that conversation happen and – if or when it does occur – how can it ensure that it is productive?
Ukraine’s current existential crisis reflects an ironic twist of history. In 1994, the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – Russia, the U.S., the U.K., France and China – issued security assurances to Ukraine which then voluntarily turned over its weapons to Russia under what is today referred to as the Budapest Memorandum. Today, it is Russia that is threatening Ukraine’s very existence with its own nuclear arms. The United States, Britain and France, meanwhile, are assisting Ukraine through NATO.
China can cite its own Budapest Memorandum statement, in which it offered security assurances, and volunteer to do what it can to help end the current crisis. Renewing its assurances to Ukraine – that it would not suffer for having given up its nuclear weapons – would be Chinese wisdom at work.
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