By Sergio Rodriguez Gelfenstein *
Although the most visible scenario of the conflict in Ukraine takes place in the military sphere, behind the shadows but also in public, diplomacy plays a fundamental role in the search for a solution to the conflict. Despite the differences and antagonistic positions that sometimes conspire against the possibility of providing a real solution to the quagmire, each power manifests particular interests that it puts on the table at the time of dialogue and negotiation.
Since the beginning of Russia’s military operation in Ukraine, the West has appealed to China to side with the measures and sanctions that the United States and Europe have taken against Moscow. Already at the beginning of March, Europe set out to intensify the pressure campaign on China to mediate in the conflict in Ukraine. Faced with this situation, President Xi Jinping communicated on the 8th of that month with his French colleague, Emmanuel Macron, and with the German Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz. He told them that he “deeply regretted the return of the war to the European continent” and that he supported a diplomatic resolution of the crisis.
Xi reiterated Beijing’s opposition to sanctions that have become a cornerstone of the West’s response to the Russian move. He added that “maximum restraint” must be exercised to avoid a humanitarian disaster, warning that the sanctions “will drag down the world economy that is already under the heavy burden of the pandemic”. Xi added that all countries should “actively advocate a concept of security common, integral, cooperative and sustainable”.
The Chinese president said that his country was willing to maintain “coordination with France, Germany and the European Union and to play an active role with the international community.” Likewise, he demanded respect for national sovereignty and the territorial integrity of all nations.
In another look at the matter, a statement posted on the French government website reported that the three leaders “agreed to fully support all negotiations aimed at a diplomatic solution to the conflict.” The German statement, for its part, pointed out that “Xi gave his support so that Russia’s actions were not influenced by any third party.”
For its part, the Ukrainian government also contacted China, urging it to exert influence on Russia. According to the British newspaper Financial Times, Dmytro Kuleba, Ukraine’s Foreign Minister told a press conference that “China is interested in stopping this war.” He considered that the Asian power had a large number of tools to “make a difference” and estimated that its involvement in the solution of the conflict could be counted on, with the hope that “its efforts will be successful”.
On March 18, at the request of Joe Biden, the presidents of the United States and China held a video conference. On the Ukraine issue, Biden stated his position, appealing once again to the Chinese side to maintain communication in order to prevent the escalation of the situation. For his part, Xi pointed out that China would not have wanted the situation in Ukraine to evolve to the crisis it manifests today. But faced with the fait accompli, he reiterated that Beijing always judges matters independently according to what is right and what is wrong in each case. China advocates upholding international law and the universally recognized basic norms of international relations, and persists in acting in light of the UN Charter, advocating the concepts of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security.
However, marking another nuance of the matter, it could be said that the exchange between US and Chinese diplomats has not sailed in the same sea of tranquility. In a conversation – also in early March – US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken spoke with his Chinese colleague Wang Yi to press for a condemnation of the Russian military operation in Ukraine. In a threatening tone, State Department spokesman Ned Price reported that Blinken had told Wang “…the world is waiting to see which nations uphold the basic principles of freedom, self-determination and sovereignty.”
As the days went by, from another perspective but acting in line with Washington, Europe made clear its concern over Beijing’s refusal to condemn the Russian action while expressing tacit rhetorical support for Moscow: The EU considered that in the face of the seriousness of the situation, it was essential to count on China’s intervention.
A few days before the highest official responsible for EU foreign policy, Josep Borrell, declared that “this war will be won on the battlefield”, and when he was still speaking as a diplomat, he communicated with Foreign Minister Wang to thank China for abstaining from votes condemning Russia at the United Nations. Borrell “expressed appreciation for China’s readiness to support the cessation of hostilities and dialogue .” As is becoming usual, the EU’s discourse is far from being coherent and constant.
Wang responded that the international community should support the Ukraine-Russia talks for a ceasefire and a peaceful resolution of the conflict. In this regard, he said that: “China is willing to continue playing a constructive role in de-escalating the situation to the best of its ability.” However, at a press conference with foreign journalists, Wang offered his strongest support for Moscow, saying the relationship with Russia was “rock solid.”
American desperation at not being able to draw China into its positions was manifested during Secretary Blinken’s visit to Lithuania when he openly criticized it, saying: “Beijing talks a lot about the importance of maintaining international order, stability and respect for sovereignty”, but “facts speak louder than words”
While all this was happening, Beijing began to take note of the events in Europe until it came to understand that the ultimate goal of NATO’s expansion to the east is China, Ukraine was only a first step, the weakening and destruction of Russia as a relevant international actor, the second. But the focus is on the Asian giant, which is considered the true competitor of the United States on the global stage.
Thus, Foreign Minister Wang was forced to express that the objective of the US strategy in the Indo-Pacific region was to create another NATO, so the actions that the United States was taking in the region were indicative of the construction ” bloc politics”, against which he warned that the Asia-Pacific “is not a chessboard for geopolitical competition”.
Escalating aggressive rhetoric against China, Blinken went on to claim that Beijing was “on the wrong side of history when it comes to Ukraine and the aggression committed by Russia.” The response was immediate and forceful in the words of Foreign Minister Wang, who said that his country’s position was fair, objective and comprehensive of the aspirations of the majority of countries, assuring that it would be time that would show that China’s position you are on the right side of history.
This point of view establishes a strategic difference in relation to the concepts that are handled around the conflicts that occur in the world and in which the United States is always involved. Wang called on Washington to “… abandon the Cold War mentality, refrain from engaging in group confrontations, and build a balanced, effective and sustainable regional security architecture on the European continent,” recalling that his country will never accept coercion or external pressure for which he rejected any type of unfounded accusation or suspicion.
Sending a clear message to the world, the foreign ministers of Russia and China met again at the end of March in the central eastern Chinese city of Tunxi on the sidelines of the third ministerial-level conference of Afghanistan’s neighboring countries. Minister Lavrov informed his Chinese colleague about the progress of the military operation in Ukraine and the development of the dialogue that was taking place between Moscow and kyiv at that time.
During the opening speech before the meeting, the Russian foreign minister pointed out that the world is going through an important stage in the history of international relations, at the end of which the global situation must be “clarified considerably”, and sent a direct message to China evoked that: “We will advance together with you, together with other like-minded nations, towards a multipolar, just and democratic world order.”
But the insistent pressure from Brussels led the Chinese Foreign Ministry to replicate the aggressive Western rhetoric by establishing, once again, its decision to maintain an independent policy regarding the conflict in Ukraine. Faced with a direct question during a press conference about China’s role in this matter, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian called the role played by Beijing constructive, in contrast to that played by Brussels.
Zhao recalled that the current international situation is increasingly turbulent at the same time that uncertainty grows significantly over time, although “as two important world forces, China and the EU maintain strategic communication, […] which will inject stability and positive energy to the international situation.
To leave no doubt about his position, in a meeting between the Chinese foreign minister and the diplomatic advisor to the French president, Emmanuel Bonne, Wang Yi informed him that he believed that the loss of balance in European security had been the fundamental cause of the crisis. ukrainian Wang stated that a balanced, effective and sustainable European security framework, based on the principle of indivisibility of security, should be rebuilt to truly achieve long-term stability in Europe.”
* Sergio Rodríguez Gelfenstein is a Venezuelan international relations expert, who was previously Director of the International Relations of the Presidency of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, his country’s ambassador to Nicaragua and an advisor for international politics for TELESUR. Gelfenstein has written numerous books, among them “China in the XXI Century – the awakening of a giant” which has been published in several Latin American countries. You can follow him on Twitter: @sergioro0701