China’s moment of decision

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi recently claimed that his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba expressed hope that China would help broker a ceasefire. If China wants to play that role effectively, it must retain its credibility as an honest broker, including by avoiding any explicit condemnation of Russia’s actions.

CAMBRIDGE – China’s response to Russia’s war against Ukraine has come under intense scrutiny and sharp criticism. While Chinese officials have expressed concern about civilian casualties, they have avoided condemning the attack, which they see as a response to NATO expansion, and have stated they will not join the West in imposing financial sanctions against Russia. However, China has not given its full and unconditional support to Russian President Vladimir Putin. The question is whether China’s relatively neutral stance will be crucial to averting a potentially more dangerous military escalation.

For most Western politicians, China’s response to the violence unleashed by Putin has been terribly wrong. As White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki recently pointed out: “This is not a time to stand by from the sidelines. These are times to emphatically condemn the actions of President Putin and Russia’s invasion of a sovereign country.” For Florida Senator Marco Rubio, China’s refusal to condemn the invasion indicates that “it has no problem with the killing, the indiscriminate killing, of innocents in Ukraine.”

In reality, China’s position is much more nuanced than suggested by these interpretations. To begin with, despite its assertion of disagreement with the sanctions that the West has imposed on Russia, China has taken steps to comply with some of them, by limiting Chinese financing of certain transactions with Russia. And Chinese financial institutions are not prohibited from complying with Western sanctions. Furthermore, China has repeatedly revised its stance towards Ukraine, gradually intensifying its disapproval of Russian actions. Behind the scenes, Chinese leaders have discussed and debated policies to modify their relations with Russia.

One hopes that China has refused to openly side with the West against Russia to give itself some wiggle room. After a phone call, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi noted that his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmitro Kuleba, had expressed hope that China would help broker a ceasefire. If he is to fulfill that role effectively, he must maintain his credibility, which includes avoiding explicit condemnation of Putin’s actions, sustaining economic relations and keeping channels of communication open with the Russian leader.

To maintain this role, China may eventually take a tougher stance on Russia in order to send a message to Putin, but it must gauge its actions against its risk assessment. With the ruble tanking, the Russian stock market on the brink of collapse, and the military deployment in Ukraine facing stiff resistance, China may be calculating that now is not the time to apply its full weight.

The West may welcome Putin’s complete isolation. But it is clear that cornering a possibly deranged authoritarian leader with access to a huge nuclear arsenal creates an existential risk for the entire planet. In fact, Putin has announced that he has placed his country’s nuclear forces on “high alert.”

This is not a statement to be taken lightly, especially if Putin really is not in his right mind. The principle of mutually assured destruction (MAD) has a deterrent effect only if those with the authority to launch nuclear weapons behave rationally. The missile attack on Europe’s largest nuclear plant has just shown how reckless Putin can be. Even without a deliberate nuclear weapons attack, the nuclear threat remains omnipresent.

To compound the risk, Putin has complete authority in Russia today. Even in the late Soviet Union there was a certain decentralization of power. Following Nikita Khrushchev’s departure, Soviet leaders created a “triumvirate” that distributed authority between Premier Alexei Kósigin, General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev, and President of the Presidium Anastas Mikoyan.

While the Soviet Union remained a totalitarian state, these leaders functioned as counterweights to one another, leading to a more methodical approach to relations with the United States and reinforcing the effectiveness of the MAD. Today there is no such rationality in Russian decision-making. Consequently, confronting Russia requires all possible positions to mitigate the threat that Putin represents.

His attack on Ukraine is brutal and the world is right to be so horrified. The Ukrainian people, who have shown enormous courage and made great sacrifices, deserve our deepest respect and all our support. But a Putin with nothing to lose is the most dangerous Putin of all. To avoid nuclear war, diplomats and world leaders must remain emotionally detached and as rational as possible.

At this strange and threatening time, the world needs a country with a relatively neutral stance, one that maintains communication with the Kremlin and has some degree of influence over Russia. That country is China.

A hopeful scenario is that China maintains a dialogue with Putin and displays a less moralistic approach to the conflict in Ukraine. China should apply quiet diplomacy where it is appropriate and its economic influence where it is needed. But the window of opportunity is closing. The war in Ukraine can easily spiral out of control, which will threaten China’s economic stability and prospects and world peace. Keeping a channel open to Russia can be a useful tactic, but the inescapable goal is to get Russia off its reckless war path.

China has adopted a foreign policy that aims to “build a community with a shared future for mankind.” To make this vision a reality, it is essential that the Asian giant urge Putin to put an end to a war that puts the future of all of us at risk.

The author

Yasheng Huang, Professor of Global Economics and Management at MIT Sloan School of Management, is about to publish The Rise and the Fall of the EAST: Examination, Autocracy, Stability and Technology in Chinese History and Today.

Translated from the English by David Meléndez Tormen

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020

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