It is commonly agreed and seemingly fated that the war in Ukraine will last for another year, perhaps longer. Last year the effects of the war were catastrophic in terms of the casualties on both sides, the impact of economic sanctions and the further disruption of supply chains on top of the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
The perpetuation of the war will wreak more havoc on the global economy, which has already slowed down. Meanwhile, crucial global concerns from preventing epidemics to halting climate change have been relegated to the remotest shelves in the offices of world leaders. None can take such issues seriously while their attention is trained on the battle for Bakhmut, Russian missiles striking Odessa, or the belligerents’ preparations for their spring offensives which are right around the corner.
The winter season may not have been as cold as expected but, as the political scientist Joseph Nye put it, the diplomatic winter was as frozen as could be until the war neared the end of its first year, at which point China offered a glimmer of hope.
Chinese President Xi Jinping made three important points about the Ukraine crisis: no one can win from war, there is no simple solution to a complex issue, and a clash between great powers must be avoided. These observations formed the general framework of Beijing’s approach to dealing with the Russian-Ukrainian war. There followed many details which can be subsumed under the heading of the “Chinese initiative”.
The two direct belligerents expressed their readiness to respond to the initiative, which was good news. But then Washington rushed to unleash a diplomatic offensive against it, basically arguing that China could not produce a good initiative. Not that Washington had any initiatives of its own to offer, as though our only available option is to watch the war drag on, letting it wreak more attrition on Russia, destroy Ukraine even more and pour more fuel on the fires of inflation, poverty and disruption.
Yet here in the Arab world, we have no alternative but to grasp the Chinese initiative, with both hands moreover, in order to prevent the harm of more war and strive for a more peaceful and prosperous world.
China has a right and is well positioned to lead such an initiative. The new reality in international relations is that China is a superpower in every sense. It boasts the capacities of an economic model that managed to lift a billion people out of poverty and into the light of modernity.
Nothing now stands in the way of its being modern, which is all that matters to China. The Chinese are not interested in how far democracy has spread in the world. Their attention is focused, as it always has been, on resuming the building process at home, inside China, and developing an economy that can export everything to the world abroad and a technological base that can reach outer space.
The Americans might like to think that China can not produce Apples, Amazons or Teslas, but in fact it has Ali Baba, G5, electric cars and satellites, and it has a global development project called the Belt and Road. What makes China’s great rise attractive is that it accompanies the American shift away from land to sea and the construction of nuclear subs, reviving that conventional pattern that was the old normal in a world characterised by an arms race that wore out the former Soviet Union in the days of the so-called Star Wars programme. The new normal is different, though it requires a little effort to discover and unleash the potential of the emergent modes and processes which defy the rule that history must repeat itself.
China is close to Russia and has much to gain from keeping relations with it stable, while Moscow cannot afford to risk alienating China which it believes has some sympathy for Russia’s position. The day after Russia launched its military operation, the Chinese president phoned President Putin to say he would like to see Russia and Ukraine in peace talks “as soon as possible.” In a sense, therefore, we can speak of a Chinese initiative from the outset of the war.
That initiative is founded on two pillars. First, all countries have a right to their sovereignty and territorial integrity being respected and, second, the legitimate security concerns of all parties must be taken seriously. Accordingly, all parties should observe the aims and principles of the UN Charter and all should support efforts to promote a peaceful solution to the crisis. The Chinese position in this is consistent with China’s attitude towards its regional issues involving Hong Kong, Macao and currently Taiwan.
It holds that the use of military force is not the answer to historic disputes. The initiative is also consistent with China’s positions on Russian behaviour in Georgia (2008), in Ukraine involving Crimea (2014) or in the crisis/war today. The invasion of another sovereign country and the seizure of territory by force are unacceptable. At the same time, China understands very well the need to respect countries’ legitimate security concerns. NATO’s relentless expansion in Europe up to Russia’s borders is little different from the US-led military pacts that are ringing China in the Indo-Pacific.
China’s position is reflected in its abstentions in UN Security Council and General Assembly votes on the crisis, reflecting its refusal to take sides. Then, as the first anniversary of the war arrived, Beijing took the occasion to launch a formal initiative whose six points add to the above-mentioned methodology. They call for humanitarian relief operations that abide by the principles of neutrality and integrity, attention to the needs of internally displaced persons in Ukraine, guarantees for the protection of civilians, the safe and unimpeded provision of humanitarian assistance, assurances for the safety of foreign citizens in Ukraine, and support for the UN’s coordinating role in channelling humanitarian assistance in the conflict zone and for the UN roles in other aspects of the crisis.
China has acted just as a responsible superpower and permanent member of the UN Security Council should, with integrity and commitment to UN principles, independence, objectivity and neutrality. Given Washington’s immediate and Europe’s subsequent refusal to so much as consider China’s proposal, we must not forego the opportunity presented by the Chinese initiative to end the fighting and begin serious negotiations. There is no concrete evidence to support Washington’s allegations that China was sending Russia arms to use in Ukraine.
China probably understands that, in its new role as a dove of peace for Europe, it can not be supporting one side with weapons and supporting peace talks at the same time. When China proposed its initiative, Ukrainian President Zelenskyy indicated that his response would be positive if China did not supply arms to Russia and, indeed, his response was positive. China’s initiative should receive wholehearted support from the many countries of the world that have nothing to do with the war but are suffering because of it.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 16 March, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly