Commentary on Political Economy

Wednesday 9 August 2023

How to tell if China is trying to stop the war in Ukraine

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Shanghai on May 21, 2014. (Mark Ralston/AFP via Getty Images)
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China, far and away Russia’s most crucial ally and trade partner, is the one country that might have the leverage to force Vladimir Putin to rethink his ruinous war in Ukraine. So far, President Xi Jinping has refused to exercise that power; for the most part, he has done quite the opposite, exposing Beijing’s hypocrisy in the process.

In February, Point No. 1 of a 12-part Chinese statement of principles, supposedly intended to promote a settlement in the war, embraced the core tenet of the United Nations Charter that all countries’ sovereignty and territorial integrity “must be effectively upheld.” Rather than condemning Moscow’s unwarranted war of territorial conquest, however, Mr. Xi proclaimed a “no limits” partnership with Russia on the eve of the war and has enabled the Kremlin’s aggression by providing it with critical diplomatic, commercial and military backing since then.

In March, he paid a three-day state visit to Mr. Putin — the latest of several dozen meetings between the two since Mr. Xi came to power a decade ago. It was not until April this year, 14 months into Russia’s full-scale invasion, that he finally placed a phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

So it was noteworthy last weekend that China was among more than 40 nations that attended a high-level conference convened at Mr. Zelensky’s urging to discuss Ukraine’s position on ending the war. The meeting, which excluded Russia, was hosted by Saudi Arabia in its port city of Jeddah. It was a chance for Ukraine to make its case to top national security officials from major nations that have either been fence-sitters during the war or tilted toward Moscow, often owing to their dependence on Russian energy or arms shipments. Participants included Brazil, India, South Africa, Indonesia, Egypt, Mexico and Turkey, in addition to Ukraine’s European allies. The United States was represented by national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

The two-day conference produced no formal declaration; nor is it clear whether the Ukrainian representative, Andriy Yermak, a top aide to Mr. Zelensky, was able to meet face to face with his Chinese counterpart. Still, officials who attended said China was open to participating in a follow-up session in the coming months, which would be this year’s third, including one held earlier this summer in Copenhagen.

China’s policymaking is opaque, but its priorities in the war in Ukraine are clear — as well as contradictory. Its strategic alliance with Russia is based mainly on a conviction that Moscow’s heft is useful as a counterbalance to what it regards as U.S. hegemony. Yet Chinese leaders are also determined not to be seen as encouraging Moscow’s aggression, mindful that it plays particularly poorly in Europe, a key trade partner.

The trouble with Beijing’s stance is that its actions speak louder than its words. Joint exercises of Chinese and Russian forces continue, including nearly a dozen warships from the two countries that sailed close to Alaska’s Aleutian Islands last week, prompting U.S. officials to deploy four Navy destroyers as well as military aircraft to monitor their movements. China has been propping up Russia’s anemic wartime economy by sharply increasing its Russian oil imports. And significant quantities of body armor, helmets, drones and night-vision equipment from Chinese companies have made their way to Russian forces in recent months, despite official denials from Beijing that it is providing Moscow with military aid.

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Moreover, by failing to criticize Mr. Putin’s invasion and by promoting the “legitimate security interests and concerns of all countries,” China has backed Russia’s false victimization narrative. The truth is that Mr. Putin is the aggressor who unleashed an illegal war.

If China wants to play a constructive role advancing peace, it should do more than attend a follow-up conference called by Ukraine. It should also take the opportunity to promote a truthful statement making clear that Ukrainian territory has been illegally occupied by Russia for nearly a decade, and that Mr. Putin’s full-scale invasion nearly 18 months ago has further compromised Kyiv’s sovereign right to protect its internationally recognized borders and rule its own land.

Short of that, the world will continue to see Chinese maneuvering for what it has been — a smokescreen to obscure its enabling of an unjustified war.

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