My recent commentary (bit.ly/3InZRiV) stirred up strong arguments on both sides of the increasingly contentious debate over the horrific war in Ukraine. While most in the West recognise the need for extraordinary actions in extraordinary times and agree that China has an important role to play in resolving the conflict, those sympathetic to Russia’s concerns over border security and NATO enlargement argue that China has no reason to weigh in. But both posed the obvious and important follow-up question: What exactly can China do to restore peace and stability to Ukraine?
China can take the initiative in three key areas. For starters, Chinese president Xi Jinping should call for an emergency summit of G20 leaders, focused on achieving an immediate and unconditional ceasefire in this conflict and developing an agenda for a negotiated peace. The G20 is now the recognised forum for global action in the midst of crisis, having galvanised support among the world’s leading economies in late 2008 for a coordinated response to the global financial crisis. Both China and Russia are members, so the G20 can play a similar role today. As a demonstration of his personal commitment to this effort, Xi may think of breaking his post-pandemic lockdown protocol (he has not left China in 24 months) and attend the meeting in person—as should Russian president Vladimir Putin.
Second, China can contribute substantially to humanitarian assistance. With children comprising at least half of the more than two million refugees from Ukraine (a number projected to rise quickly to at least four million), the need for humanitarian support directed at neighbouring host countries is unquestionably acute. China should make a no-strings-attached donation of $50 billion to UNICEF—the United Nations Children’s Fund—the world’s largest relief agency for children in distress.
Third, China can support Ukrainian reconstruction. Russia’s brutal bombing campaign has been aimed at pulverising Ukrainian urban infrastructure. Ukraine’s government currently puts war-related infrastructure loss in the $100 billion range, a figure that could rise in the days and weeks ahead. Rebuilding will be an urgent yet very burdensome task for a country that in 2020 ranked 120th in the world in terms of per capita GDP (on a purchasing power parity basis). China should use its peerless focus on modern infrastructure to provide dedicated post-conflict support to Ukraine, including but not limited to infrastructure-related activities of its Belt and Road Initiative (of which Ukraine has been a member since 2017) and the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. This is China’s Marshall Plan moment.
The plan I propose is far from perfect. But as Ukraine burns and its people, especially its children, suffer unfathomable hardship, it certainly beats the alternative of prolonging this tragic war. Yes, it may put China in an uncomfortable position. But leadership never comes easy. With Europe arguably on the brink of a war the likes of which it has not seen in 75 years, this is China’s moment to rise to the occasion. And make no mistake: this war is not just about Europe. Unlike World War II, this conflict has put two nuclear superpowers on a path of dangerous confrontation, with—as Putin himself put it—“consequences…such as you have never seen in your entire history.”
Only China can bring Putin to his senses. He has been unflinching in the face of brutal sanctions from the West. As a result, the Russian economy is on the brink of imploding. Without the support of Russia’s month-plus-old “unlimited” partnership with China, that will happen sooner rather than later. China matters far more to Putin than any pain inflicted by Western sanctions.
Moreover, the potential collateral damage China faces from continuing to prioritise its partnership with Russia over its broader responsibilities for world peace are becoming increasingly apparent. As the West continues to up the ante on draconian sanctions against Russia, senior US officials are now openly discussing China’s guilt by association, just as I had warned. China needs to act quickly in order to forestall this possibility—before it finds itself in the crosshairs of rapidly spreading sanctions.
For a deeply principled nation, the choice is actually quite obvious. Since the days of Zhou Enlai in the mid-1950s, China has been steadfast in its commitment to the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, including respect for national sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, and non-interference in other countries’ domestic affairs. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is in clear violation of these sacrosanct principles. There is no room for China to finesse that conclusion while remaining true to its core values.
To be sure, as underscored in its recent partnership accord with Russia, China has expressed concerns over NATO expansion and Russia’s border security. Again, this is where China can take the lead in arguing these concerns in an emergency G20 forum. In assuming a leadership position, China will have ample opportunity to play the role of honest broker in weighing the risks and resolving this debate. But the war must end first.
Xi has been determined and methodical in charting a new path for China over the past ten years. At times his rhetoric has soared, steeped in aspirations of rejuvenation after a century of humiliation, great-power status for a “modern socialist nation” by 2049, and, more recently, “common prosperity” for the world’s largest population. Yet at some point, rhetoric starts to ring hollow. This crisis calls for more than slogans and promises: It is China’s opportunity to demonstrate that it is willing to step up and act on its long-sought goal of a responsible global leadership.
That may well raise tough questions for the rest of the world. But that’s our problem. After all, we in the West have not done a particularly good job in preventing this tragedy. The message bears repeating: Only China can stop Russia.
The author is Faculty member at Yale University and former chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022