By General (ret.) Daniel Schaeffer, former defense attaché in Thailand, Vietnam and China, member of the French think tank Asie21-futuribles (www.asie21.com)
On February 24, 2023, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs published a document entitled “China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis”. It comprises twelve points which constitute the basic principles to which all the parties involved, on first line as well on the second one in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, should refer to, as long as they would agree to show good faith and good will, so as to return to a situation of peace in Europe. Without all the addressees being named, such as the United States and NATO, all should easily recognize the messages addressed to them in filigree.
Addresses to the attention of Russia
Without discussing each of the twelve points one by one, they must be quoted however, even in disorder, because all fall under the common sense but some messages are worth deciphering however even if it is easy to guess whom they are addressed to. And despite what one might think because of the privileged relations between Beijing and Moscow, Russia is not spared.
It is not spared in point 6 “Protecting civilians and prisoners of war”, when the Chinese write that “the parties to the conflict should avoid attacking civilians or civilian facilities”. It is indeed Russia that China is challenging there.
Nor is it in point 7, “Keeping nuclear power plants safe”, where it is stated that Beijing “opposes armed attacks against nuclear power plants and other peaceful nuclear facilities, and calls on all parties to comply with international law, including the Convention on Nuclear Safety”.
Finally, Moscow is not exempted either in point 9 “Facilitating grain export” where it is required that “all parties need to implement the Black Sea Grain Initiative signed by Russia, Türkiye, Ukraine and the UN” knowing that among “all parties” Russia has not shown a delirious enthusiasm to facilitate the departure of Ukrainian grain.
The interpellation of all parties in conflict
Russia is again called upon, but this time in the context of the appeal to all belligerents, the actual ones as Russia and Ukraine are, and the pseudo-cobelligerents as the United States and NATO are, in points 2 “Abandoning the Cold War mentality”, 3 “Ceasing hostilities”, 4 “Resuming peace talks”, 6 “Protecting civilians and prisoners of war”, 8 “Reducing strategic risks”.
“Abandoning the Cold War mentality” is Beijing’s recurring motto when it accuses Washington of wanting to extend its hegemony over the whole world, including by force of arms. If in the usual framework of their bilateral relations the purpose of such a motto is to point the finger at the United States and make it feel guilty at every opportunity that is arising, the Chinese appeal in the present situation appears very appropriate, since both the Russians and the Americans are uttering senseless threats to use nuclear weapons and to retaliate by reciprocation. The thinking here is linked to point 8 in which Beijing states that “Nuclear weapons must not be used and nuclear wars must not be fought The threat or use of nuclear weapons should be opposed. Nuclear proliferation must be prevented and nuclear crisis avoided”. The message is clear to both Russia and the United States.
Point 3, which should be quoted in full, calls on all: “All parties must stay rational and exercise restraint, avoid fanning the flames and aggravating tensions, and prevent the crisis from deteriorating further or even spiraling out of control”. Here, the question is to determine who, of the two opponents and their allies, is adding more fuel to the fire or whether the parties involved should be sent back to back. Then, “All parties should support Russia and Ukraine in working in the same direction and resuming direct dialogue as quickly as possible, so as to gradually deescalate the situation and ultimately reach a comprehensive ceasefire”. Who can be against such a proposal? But are Russia and Ukraine capable of resuming such negotiations on their own, without outside interferences, and when would they have the genuine will to do so?
The implied challenge to the United States and NATO
In this declaration, there are several points that are addressed more to the United States and NATO than to the others. For this, it is necessary to return to point 2 “Abandoning the Cold War mentality” in which the Chinese specify: “The security of a country should not be pursued at the expense of others. The security of a region should not be achieved by strengthening or expanding military blocs”. If one can consider that the first proposal is addressed to the Russians, because they are the initial triggers of the war in Ukraine, the second is addressed to NATO, whose expansion has not ceased since 1991, with the successive integration of several former Eastern Europe communist countries. At the end of the Cold War, the armed bloc of the Warsaw Pact collapsed, while another, NATO, was maintained and continued to forward its military power closer to Russia. It is indeed the Russian feeling that China refers to when it mentions the “NATO” threat at this point in its text.
In this chapter of the address to the West, China in point 10 calls for “Stopping unilateral sanctions” and explains that “Unilateral sanctions and maximum pressure cannot solve the issue; they only create new problems”. It “opposes unilateral sanctions unauthorized by the UN Security Council” and considers that “Relevant countries should stop abusing unilateral sanctions and “long-arm jurisdiction” against other countries “. In the second proposal of this last sentence, the injunction is directly aimed at the United States, which is unduly affording itself a right of extraterritoriality in the application of its internal economic laws, an extension that is harming many countries in the world, including China.
The same is true when, in its point 11 “Keeping industrial and supply chains stable” Beijing professes that “All parties should earnestly maintain the existing world economic system and oppose using the world economy as a tool or weapon for political purposes”. While there may indeed be a connection of the Ukrainian crisis with its global economic implications, Beijing is in counterpoint primarily defending its own interests. Here, the hidden allusion is to the embargo that Washington intends to impose on the Chinese over their access to technologically superior semiconductors, particularly those produced by Taiwan’s TSMC, and to the means of producing electronic chips. This has led to some dissension on the subject between the Americans on the one hand, and the Japanese and Dutch on the other one.
The evocation of the intangibility of borders
Finally, in point 1 “Respecting the sovereignty of all countries”, China recalls that “Universally recognized international law, including the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter, must be strictly observed”. This brings us back to China’s recurrent discourse on the intangibility of borders, which is a variable-geometry concept for Beijing. In the current conflict, the Chinese address applies to Russia and is expressed in favor of Ukraine, if however the intangibility expressed by China is to be effectively taken at face value, that is to say on the basis of the Ukrainian borders ante-annexation of Crimea. On the other hand, if the intangibility of borders is seen by Beijing through the prism of Moscow, with the prospect of definitive annexations of parts of Ukrainian territory, the meaning of the Chinese discourse appears quite different. If in absolute terms the injunction sounds right in terms of fundamental principles, on the other hand, it sounds wrong in terms of their actual application by Beijing.
As a matter of fact, in this area, China has no lesson to teach to the world. It is its refusal to recognize the existing borders between itself and India in the Himalayas. It is its fear of seeing Tibet achieve independence, which, however, should no longer be the object of great concern on its part, given that this province is increasingly sinicized. It is its fear of the Uyghur independence movement, which is seeking the creation of an independent state, East Turkestan, a movement that gives Beijing a lot of concern because it is infiltrated by an Islamic fundamentalist current that is rather difficult to curb. It is its fear of seeing Taiwan declaring its independence unilaterally and the Communist threat of reconquering the island by force if its government succumbs to the temptation of a definitive secession. Finally, it declares the largest part of the South China Sea to be its own in complete contravention of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. In the East China Sea, it is its refusal to see that maritime area shared between itself, Japan and South Korea according to the median line; in the South China Sea, it is its will to establish its “jurisdiction” over 80 to 90% of this marine space. Thus, in terms of the intangibility of borders, China is really not qualified to give advice on this issue.
China’s proposed contribution to return to peace
As a final point, China proposes, in many places in its announcement, to contribute to the return to peace, to the correction of the serious disruptions caused by the conflict in the world order, especially in the economic field. Point 12 “Promoting post-conflict reconstruction” is specifically devoted to this. It prescribes that “The international community needs to take measures to support post-conflict reconstruction in conflict zones. China stands ready to provide assistance and play a constructive role in this endeavor”. On this regard, China is not only pleading for the whole world but also for itself, whose economy has been indirectly impacted by the conflict, albeit partially, and much less than it was by the covid-19 crisis.
Elsewhere, in its intended role as a peacemaker, it promises that it will “continue to play a constructive role” in “promoting talks for peace”, “help parties to the conflict open the door to a political settlement as soon as possible” and “create conditions and platforms for the resumption of negotiation” (point 4). In points 6 and 7 it expresses its support for prisoner exchanges and for “the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in playing a constructive role in promoting the safety and security of peaceful nuclear facilities”. And in point 9 it recalls that the “cooperation initiative on global food security”, which it launched on July 8, 2022 at the G20 meeting in Bali, “provides a feasible solution to the global food crisis”.
In short, in all respects China introduces itself as a positive actor wishing to contribute to the return to a global life largely disrupted by the Ukrainian crisis. There Peking appears in the straight line of the imperial tradition which wants the emperor, as the intermediary between earth and heaven from which he received the mandate to make harmony reign under heaven, Tiān xià as China enthusiasts like to quote it.
The lukewarm reception afforded to the Chinese proposal
What is encouraging in this proposal is the favorable, even if lukewarm and partial, reception from the Ukrainian president with the words “not bad”, even though he proclaims his desire to achieve a final victory against his assailant. On the Russian side, no echo, but one can assume that the plan was presented to Putin by Wang yi, former foreign minister promoted to state adviser in March 2018, when the two men met in Moscow on February 22, 2023. It was undoubtedly discussed, but it is unlikely that the Chinese changed anything in their proposal, their preoccupation being at first to respond to a concern for fairness, disputable perhaps, but nonetheless a concern for fairness.
Nevertheless, confronted to such a step forward, encouraging and to be encouraged, especially by the European countries and France in particular, the West has shown itself to be fussy and critical, even if many elements of the Chinese proposal are in line with the calls for peace contained in the resolution adopted on February 23 by the UN General Assembly. But there are two differences: first, the resolution does not call for a ceasefire, although three countries, Iran, Hungary and China, proposed one during the session, and second it demands the withdrawal of Russian troops from the occupied territories, which is not included in the Chinese proposal. However, by voting in favor of such an imperative resolution, even if it is designated as “non-binding”, most of the attendees to the UN assembly who chose to approve it knew very well that Russia would not comply with such a demand. A real commitment to ending the fighting would have been to constrain all parties to firmly decide and implement a ceasefire, as Beijing demands it in its declaration. This would have frozen the situation on the ground, and could have laid the basis for the engagement of negotiations, with the risk of them taking a long time, but with the advantage of starting as soon as possible the rehabilitation of this poor and heroic country whose population is the sacrificial victim of the animosity between the United States, its “NATO” allies, and Russia.
Welcome the Chinese proposal and start working with it
So here is China posing as a mediator with peaceful proposals. It is certainly suspected of collusion with Russia. But today who can still whisper in Putin’s ear to encourage him to return to positions more in line with the law of war and international law? On the other hand, the bridges between China, the United States and Europe have not been broken. Despite the distrusts that might be observed towards it, China can hold a place as a genuine mediator. If we really want to bring peace to Europe as soon as possible, or in the meantime, at least establish an armistice, it would be a fault not to build around the Chinese proposal.
Daniel Schaeffer, Asie21
27 February 2023