What did Putin tell Xi when they met at the opening of the Winter Olympic Games in Beijing? After a month of war in Ukraine no one is any clearer, the Chinese diplomats say they don’t know and that is probably true, the diplomats of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs are often excluded from sensitive overseas related discussions. Xi of course knows but he is saying nothing, and would the world believe him anyway? What is clear though is that Putin fooled Xi. Why? Because Putin fooled himself. Even within the first few days of the invasion stress was showing at the highest levels of Russia’s government. A number of senior Russian generals have been killed in the conflict, the Russian side has failed to convert its vastly greater military resources into an effective fighting force and there are signs that the Russians may try only to consolidate gains in eastern Ukraine rather than command the whole country.
Putin did not expect this outcome. He by all indications had expected a quick victory as he had seen in 2014 when he seized the Crimea. If he did tell Xi of his plans, they would no doubt have been touting a short, sharp, surgical type of military operation which would quickly replace Ukrainian leadership with a Kremlin puppet. Neither Putin nor Xi would have expected that Russia would still be fighting over a month after the first artillery shells hit Ukrainian soil. Both leaders would have known that any further incursion into Ukraine would provoke a response from the US and their Europeans allies but what is now clear is that the conflict has turned upside down all previous assumptions about the EU, the US and the post-cold war process of globalization.
What has become clear is China’s determination to present a neutral face to the conflict. What has been called, pro-Russian neutrality, or benevolent neutrality, China spouts words about how all sides should work to stop the fighting and how it will provide humanitarian relief to the Ukrainians. Such flowery words provoked a sharp response from the Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk who told the Chinese on social media that the Ukrainians needed weapons to defend their country not blankets and bedding.
As has been discussed many times in this column China has many domestic issues which its leaders are trying to tackle and involving themselves in a substantive way in the Ukraine doesn’t help them address anything domestically. The hard core anti-western narrative which has only increased under the rule of Xi Jinping has the US and its allies in the West in inevitable decline so why should China not sit out this conflict and let the West get entangled in a Russian trap in Ukraine? Extending this logic, until the invasion it was China which was seen by the US as it’s primary enemy yet now Russia has assumed that mantle again which the Chinese may think takes the pressure off them for some years to come.
Others point out that while 141 member countries of the UN voted against the Russian invasion the 35 which abstained account for nearly half the world’s population. The claim that there is global outrage can at times be wishful thinking. But the UN is a body of nation states, the small population state has the same equal vote as the large population state, and the UN was founded to protect the small states and nations. If the UN didn’t work this way then small states would be gobbled up my expansionist powers which little to no outcry. Tens of millions of lives were lost in the last century as countries tried to adjust borders through war, it is a model which all modern states should have consigned to history.
As much though as China talks neutrality and tries to be a disinterested party that position carries little weight. Firstly, China has allied with Russia through its no limits friendship, this is well documented and commented upon. Secondly, in 2013, Xi Jinping personally signed a PRC-Ukraine Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. Articles 5, 6 and 7 specifically focus on the importance each side places on territorial integrity and in this treaty Ukraine explicitly states its support for the PRC claim that Taiwan is an inseparable part of China. The three articles are given below:
Ukraine supports the PRC side’s policies on questions of national unification and territorial integrity. The Ukrainian side reiterates that the principles behind its statements on the Taiwan question remains unchanged from the political documents signed and ratified by the heads of state of the two countries between 1992 and 2013.
The Ukrainian side recognizes that there is only one China in the world and the PRC is the only legal government representing China, Taiwan is an inseparable part of China.
The Chinese side supports the efforts of the policies of Ukrainian side to protect the unity and territorial integrity of Ukraine and related questions.
Neither contracting party shall take actions that damage the sovereignty, security, or territorial integrity of the other (contracting party).
Neither contracting party shall permit third countries to use their sovereign territory to damage the sovereignty, sector, or territorial integrity of the other (contracting party).
Both contracting parties shall, in accordance with their own national law and international treaties they have entered into, not permit the formation of separatist, terrorist, and extremist groups or their affiliates that damage the sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity of the other contracting party and shall prohibit such activities.
Once complicated situations emerge internationally or regionally that threaten the peace, sovereignty, unity, or territorial integrity of either contracting party, the contracting parties shall immediately begin discussions to develop countermeasures.
(Express thanks to Andrew Erickson and Chong Ja-Ian for the work they have done on this topic and from where the translation has been retrieved. More details can be found at www.andrewerickson.com)
These are strong statements around support to ensure territorial integrity, statements which China seems to have forgotten or not relevant as their no limits ally invades. If nothing else it surely puts a limit on direct or indirect military support which China could give to Russia even if asked. China’s ambassador to the US, Qin Gang, did state that the no limits friendship does have a bottom line, he said “that line is the tenets and principles of the United Nations Charter, the recognized basic norms of international law and international relations.” How all these different statements, treaties and actions sit together is beyond this observer.
Yet even more importantly than these reasons why China can’t remain neutral is because China, and specifically Xi Jinping continues to promise all nations so much more from Chinese global leadership. Xi’s global slogan is of a “community of common destiny for mankind” or a “community with a shared future for mankind”. Those are big sounding words, not focused on China but for all human beings so the question to Xi Jinping during the single most significant geopolitical shock in decades, and arguably since the end of the second world war is simply, “Where are you China? What do you have to say and offer now? Chinese rhetoric talks of a multi-polar world where China has a voice. But its current neutral stance is achieving nothing to end the conflict. It would be unrealistic to think that China would simply join in with the US, EU, Japan, UK and others in sanctioning Russia. China detests yet fears sanctions so the country was never going to follow in that path but inactivity and paralysis is the Chinese response. Chinese media and diplomats look to blame the conflict on the US and NATO and ignore the realities on the ground in Ukraine. How can offers of blankets and bedding be the action that follows Xi’s grand pronouncements of a common destiny for mankind? Those words look worthless now more than they ever did. China’s actions speak much louder than Xi’s speeches, a Chinese multi-polar world looks like one where might is right, where big countries can change borders and cancel entire countries based on an imagined history obsessed over by their leaders.
Distrust of America
Many countries will have abstained from voting against Russia because of distrust or disillusion with America over the past few decades. There is no doubt that the Iraq invasion, the failure of action in Syria, the Trump Presidency and most recently the shambolic departure from Afghanistan has soured many on America. It is all too easy to call the US hypocrites, Trump pulled out of treaties so why should other countries respect them? The complaints are real and genuine and can be heard within the US as well. But the issue at stake should not be a popularity contest on the US and past events, millions of Ukrainians have been forced from their homes by wholly unjustified and unprovoked aggression by a nuclear power which guaranteed the sovereignty of Ukraine when it gave it its nuclear weapons in the 1990s.
Other Asian powers like India and Vietnam abstained from voting against Russia so is China really an outlier? But those countries buy weapons from Russia which are then mainly pointed at China. China shouldn’t think that those that abstain have much common ground, they don’t.
The Shared Future
What Xi Jinping means by “shared future” is anyone’s guess. But there is a shared future of course and the path of globalization which has been growing for the past half century or more is, if not reversing, then certainly changing course. The pandemic, which is far from over especially in China, highlighted how global supply chains kept prices low but were found to be easily fractured or disrupted in times of crisis. The dependency on China had already highlighted the political risks associated with them as China used “mask diplomacy” to favour some countries over others. The trend or at least willingness of companies to readdress supply chain geography will only be accelerated by the war in Ukraine. At best it will remain a limited conflict in scale and duration and not spread to NATO member neighbours but the human cost will be terrible. The Ukrainian soil soaked up too much blood whether through pogroms, Soviet collectivization, Nazi invasion in the 20th century and yet they are forced to suffer again this century. But even if a ceasefire and uneasy peace can be reached soon the change which has come upon Europe will not be reversed. Dependency on totalitarian regimes will be wholly reassessed. As dozens of companies have pulled out of Russia it is noteworthy that Russia was far more integrated with the West and international norms than China is today. The internet giants who have pulled out of Russia were never even allowed in China. Putin’s fanciful view of Ukrainian history is no more surreal than stories the Chinese system teaches about Taiwan and the South China Sea. Putin has been in power for 22 years, no country ever does well with such aged leaders, honest advice seldom reaches the highest levels of power, and the leader ends up believing their own propaganda. Later this year Xi Jinping will look to gain third term as leader of the Chinese Communist Party, the role from which all his power comes. It is very likely he will succeed and add to his 10 year reign. Can anyone really think this is a good outcome for China?
If China really did offer a different and positive approach to geopolitics then now is the time for China to show it. It has framed itself as victim and all problems stemming from the hold the US has over global institutions yet when the opportunity presents itself China has nothing fresh to offer. It pleads neutrality when it claims global greatness and yet fails to engage with countries it has actively signed treaties with. Perhaps China may still surprise the world and find a solution to the tragedy in Ukraine. If that happens there will be many applauding and hailing its efforts yet results demand more than words and speeches.
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