A few weeks ago, I wrote about China’s changing stance on Russia and Ukraine. I may have been alone in my scepticism about the widely-reported U.S. claims that China was seriously considering selling weapons to Russia, but I pointed to recent public statements by China – as well as reports from my own sources regarding the drone manufacturer DJI – which suggested that China had in fact decided to take a friendlier position toward Ukraine. Then, last Wednesday, we had proof of that.
It’s already been reported that Xi Jinping and President Zelenskyy had a “long and meaningful phone call” on that day with Zelenskyy appointing an ambassador to China, and Xi offering to send a representative to Kyiv to help broker a political settlement with Russia. However, what went largely unnoticed is that later that same day, China voted “yes” to a UN General Assembly resolution containing the following language – in which Russia is starkly labelled the aggressor, to be held accountable for its crimes in Ukraine (and Georgia):
[T]he unprecedented challenges now facing Europe following the aggression by the Russian Federation against Ukraine, and against Georgia prior to that, and the cessation of the membership of the Russian Federation in the Council of Europe, call for strengthened cooperation between the United Nations and the Council of Europe, notably in order to promptly restore and maintain peace and security based on respect of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of any State, ensure the observance of human rights and international humanitarian law during the hostilities, provide redress to victims and bring to justice all those responsible for the violations of international law…
This was not some sort of accidental or irrelevant statement by China. The voting record clearly reflects Russia’s strong opposition, with Russia’s gremial friends – Belarus, Nicaragua, North Korea and Syria – being pulled in to vote against it, and the other usual suspects abstaining (with the notable exception of India, which also voted “yes”). Russia will have reached out to China, but their diplomatic efforts – which included the ludicrous spectacle of Sergei Lavrov chairing the UN Security Council – clearly had no effect.
Readers may recall that some weeks ago, Xi said he would call Zelenskyy when the “conditions and time are right”. I’d say that was impeccable timing, and a powerful message to Russia.
What does this mean for Ukraine? Apart from the obvious benefit of China not shipping weapons to Russia, it also seems to indicate that China is serious about trying to be a peacemaker. China’s recent brokerage of a rapprochement between Saudia Arabia and Iran was widely interpreted as a very significant moment for China in world affairs, which might invite speculation that China is simply trying to look big and strong once again. However, a less emotive analysis would be that China has concluded that Russia’s war has brought no benefits and many problems to China: it hasn’t fractured the West, it’s drawn greater attention to China’s irredentist claims to Taiwan, and it’s damaged trade.
China’s public position increasingly reflects that view. In my previous article, I drew attention to China’s significant new focus on the importance of “sovereignty”, and in China’s readout of Xi’s call with Zelenskyy, this was highlighted and reinforced:
Mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity is the political foundation of China-Ukraine relations. [Emphasis mine.]
The phrase “territorial integrity” in this context reads, to me, like a repudiation of China’s earlier position, which respected Russia’s “legitimate security interests” (i.e., the full-scale invasion) above matters of sovereignty. It’s a phrase that also appears in the UN resolution. And following the call, Chinese state TV broadcast the details, with its emphasis on the need for peace, and a respect for territorial integrity – in stark contrast to the Russian war propaganda that was broadcast in China after the start of the full-scale invasion last February.
Is it too optimistic to conclude that China now hopes the war can be brought to an end by a swift restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity? I don’t think so, since that would be in China’s interests. If we see sizeable gains by Ukraine in its imminent counter-offensive, then China’s increasingly powerful economic position with respect to an embattled Russia might enable it to bring Putin (or whomever remains) to the negotiating table, with the promise of helping to bring an end to Western sanctions – something that China also wants. The withdrawal of any remaining Russian troops in return for dropping Western sanctions would be a deal that this pro-Ukraine hawk would be willing to support. China could then bask in the glory of being the peacemaker once again, free to continue with its plans for world domination by 2049 – which, of course, I oppose.
Stop Press: News of China’s vote at the UN is causing waves on Russian social media. The ultra-nationalist “black colonel” Viktor Alksnis has published a widely-read post (shared by the likes of Igor Girkin) directly attacking Putin for Russia’s near-total isolation: “Never before has Russia found itself in such international isolation. Neither under the kings, nor under the general secretaries. And the President of the Russian Federation V. Putin bears personal responsibility for this […] And I am very afraid of the consequences of this catastrophe, when these millions of people fooled by propaganda will finally realise that they were simply deceived, and that in fact Russia is in an extremely humiliated and helpless state; when it dawns on them that she has no allies and no friends, and that no one will lend her a helping hand and support in this difficult situation.” [Auto-translation.]
Stop Press 2: The day following the publication of this article, Secretary of State Antony Blinken indicated the U.S. is seriously considering working with China as a potential mediator, in the event that battlefield gains this year were to put Ukraine in a good negotiating position. This is of course predicated on the acceptance of the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. There followed a flurry of other reporting on the matter, and on May 7th Henry Kissinger weighed in with similar views.
Profanity and abuse will be removed and may lead to a permanent ban.