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All Eyes on China

By Hon. Richard Holwill, JHCGA's Ambassador in Residence

With carnage in Ukraine and NATO unwilling to risk nuclear war with Russia, the best prospect for peace lies with China. U.S. President Joe Biden knows this and has scheduled a virtual meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping to discuss a peace plan.

Russian President Vladimir Putin also knew how critical China would be in this situation. He has been courting China throughout the past several years, all leading up to his invasion of Ukraine. He and Chinese President Xi signed a joint Sino-Russian Cooperation Agreement on February 4, at the opening of the Beijing Winter Olympics.[i] The wide-ranging statement on Sino-Russian cooperation spoke of a friendship between China and Russia that “has no limits.” No doubt that Putin discussed Ukraine with Xi. The Chinese Ambassador to the United States denied rumors that President Xi knew of the invasion and may have asked Putin to hold off until after the Winter Olympics.

Immediately after those games, on February 21, Putin spoke on Russia’s relationship to Ukraine in terms that were ridiculed in Ukraine and the West but were designed not for them but for China. In essence, he said that Ukraine is Russia’s Taiwan, which the People’s Republic of China considers to be an essential party of China itself. Three days later, Putin sent his troops across the border into Ukraine. They were not received with kisses and flowers as he had predicted. Instead, these largely green troops met a fierce resistance that rallied the world in support of Ukraine.

Earlier this week, the Biden went public with an intelligence report that contends that Putin asked China for additional military hardware. U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with his politburo counterpart to warn against honoring that request.[ii] The Chinese official, Yang Jeichi, is said to have assured Sullivan that China will remain neutral.

Indeed, China has tried to remain neutral, even in this conflict. Neutrality has been a constant among China’s longstanding foreign policy principles. First articulated by Zhou Enlai in the mid-1950s, Chinese officials continue to preach the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence – respect for national sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, and non-interference domestic affairs of other countries.[iii] Quite obviously, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a violation of these principles. Neutrality appears to condone Russia’s barbarism.

That might be changing. Hu Wei, the vice-chairman of the Public Policy Research Center of the Counselor’s Office of the State Council, recently warned the China cannot afford to get this wrong. He published a remarkable document that advised the Chinese government to cut ties with Putin. That article, translated and published by the U.S. China Perception Monitor, predicts that Russia cannot win this war.[iv]

Hu concludes that, even if Putin does control some territory, Russia will face a collapsing economy and a rebellion inside of Ukraine. Hu writes that this, from China’s perspective, would be a nightmare. He predicts that: It will enable the United States to regain leadership and unite the West; More developing world countries will embrace western values and institutions; And, China will become more isolated. He urges the Chinese leadership to cut ties with Russia. He argues that China’s neutrality will result in isolation and an erosion of China’s standing in the world. He urges the government to stand with the majority of countries in condemning Russia.

Notwithstanding Hu’s somewhat alarmist projections of how Russia’s demise will prompt unity and increased power in the West, he is correct when he points to the difficulty that Russia will have in achieving something that Putin can call a victory. He omitted a key point, however. As evidenced by Putin’s courting of China before the war, Russia needs China. Thus, China has the leverage needed to convince Putin to cut his losses. Accept a cease fire and even a withdrawal from those areas of Ukraine that his forces do not control.

China has tremendous economic clout but has not converted that clout into international political influence. By bringing Putin to a negotiating table and by setting limits on what Putin can expect, China will earn the moral authority needed to greatly expand its prestige and international influence. All eyes are now on China and this is the moment when it must stand tall.

Richard Holwill

Wilson, Wyoming

March 17, 2022


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