In my network, there’s a lot of interest in — and considerable disagreement over — the meaningfulness of the PRC statement of principles toward resolving the Ukraine crisis released on Friday. I gave my on-the-spot personal view in the post 1% Words, 99% Work on the day of the statement’s release but, since then, I have been fielding comments and questions from a number of friends and associates.

I am going to share here one of those conversations. The questions were posed to me by another college classmate, in this case a person with a lifetime of deep and wide professional experience in China. I hope that these questions and answers might prompt readers of Assessing China to continue to think about this issue in a curiosity-forward and thoughtful way.

Here is the Q&A exchange:

What factual inaccuracies do you find in it (the official PRC Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis)?

  • It’s important to note at the outset that this is a position paper (clarifying the PRC’s own position) rather than a peace proposal (aimed at bringing the two warring sides together). With that in mind, the PRC is perfectly entitled to set out their position in any 12 — or any 120 — points which they chose. However, it is also clear that they are using this position paper in order to position themselves to be seen as a potential mediator between the two warring parties. Whether they pull off that positioning exercise depends both on whether the PRC proves ready, willing and able to play that role and whether key parties to the conflict support them playing that role.
  • Factual problems are only one dimension of what can be problematic in a document like this. On the factual inaccuracy front, I will limit myself to the very first point. Since 1945, there has been no definition of sovereignity which squares with Russia’s invasion. To this day, China has backed Putin’s language (a special military operation, not a war or invasion) and its worldview (revanchism and restoration by force of past empire are legit). If you can’t get past the first principle, it’s hard to take the rest of the document seriously. For the rest …
    • Point 2:  A dig at the U.S. An assertion with no real substance.
    • Point 3: The question is how and under whose terms: 21st c. norms of forward-looking sovereignity protecting the rights of citizenry developed over the past 75+ years or the Putin/Xi aggrieved, backward-looking version all in the mind of an individual leader with the power to enforce conformity to his — it’s usually a man — viewpoint
    • Point 4: We can all hope for peace talks but neither of the warring party appears ready to consider these. They each hope to establish a position of strength before entering into them. Temporary stalemate.
    • Point 5: There’s a lot China could do unilaterally on this point. Words are cheap. The U.S and the West have demonstrably done a lot already. China?
    • Points 6, 7, 8 & 9: Who has been the responsible party for these specific problems? Hardly a gray area to my mind. Russian summary execution of captured soldiers and civilians in Bukha and other villages they invaded and occupied. Russian forcible  evacuations of children to camps in Russia. Russian sustained artillery assaults on the nuclear plant at Zaporizhzhia (not to mention indiscriminate attacks on civilian infrastructure). Russian interdiction of Ukrainian grain exports at ports and railways. What are the comparables from the Ukrainian side? I personally don’t think there are many but, in any case, law always gives special consideration to the responder rather than the initiator, the defender rather than the attacker.
    • Point 10: Equivalent to stripping Ukraine of one of the ways which the world community has provided to help them defend themselves.
    • Points 11 & 12: We can all agree that these would be desirable

And what’s your view on why U.S hegemony has been good for the world for the last 70 years, despite some of the bad that we did?

  • I’ll just offer two points of response
    • Providing the world with a longer period of sustained peace — not perfect of course but far better than anything that preceded it — and also more measurable human advancement (educational, health, wealth, human rights) than previously achieved at any point in history
    • Providing China with the opportunity, tools and resources to help raise 800 million of their citizens out of poverty

If “U.S. hegemony” is just part of China’s ideology, isn’t “democracy vs. autocracy” part of our ideology?

  • I quite agree with you about the “U.S. hegemony” as contrasted with the “autocracy vs democracy” point. There are levels to that though and I focus on the third level:
    • Level 1: both terms are established political science terms and describe real things in international behavior
    • Level 2: as is their right, both Beijing and Washington choose to amplify the political concept that best suits their purpose
    • Level 3: I come down against ceding there is equivalency between the two for two reasons:
      • Focus on ‘hegemony’ is rooted in a sense of historical grievance and doesn’t offer the world much unless other players share that grievance and all agree to do something about it. ‘Authoritarianism vs democracy’ draws a clear distinction between two different systems and encourages everyone to think about, and ultimately choose, their preference. Xi is at liberty to assert China offers a superior form of democracy to Western liberal democracy. Not many governments or people around the world seem to buy into that. The U.S. has over 65 formal allies based on shared values rooted in liberal democracy and the post-WWII order. China has one — North Korea — and is working hard at adding Russia and Iran to the list
      • There’s no inherent accountability to Xi’s and China’s use of the term hegemon in describing the U.S. Top-down and echoed throughout a propaganda apparatus which can’t be questioned because, as Marxist-Leninist doctrine holds, it definitionally represents what is best for the people. In the Biden Administration’s amplifying of “authoritarianism vs democracy” however, it can be questioned and jettisoned come January 2025 if that is the will of the majority of Americans.

Washington had been urging China since the beginning of Russia’s war to play some role in peace negotiations, and now it has offered to do so, outlining the basic principles. I think that’s a good thing. The U.S. cannot be an honest broker, nor can any country in NATO. Perhaps China could pay a useful role in stopping the fighting. 

  • I think what the U.S. has been urging China is (1) aspirationally, to encourage China to come down from fence-sitting and use its suasion with Moscow to promote post-WWII norms of sovereignity (versus might makes right) but (2) more importantly not to aid and abet the instigator in this war of choice with sanctions-cushioning actions and (c) definitely, definitely not with sanctions-evading support and supply of lethal munitions. China has chosen to completely reject (1) and (2) and, as for (3), is in advanced negotiation with Russia to set pricing and scale of supply for offensive drones and ammunition, possibly also artillery.  
  • The U.S. and NATO don’t offer themselves or pretend to be honest brokers. They have clearly taken the side and will continue to take the side of Ukraine since Feb 24, 2022. The fundamental problem is that China is trying to have its cake and eat it too — on the one hand, giving consistent, significant and now increasing levels of support for Russia over the past twelve months while also now posturing with this position paper as a potential honest broker. I share your hopes and think its good that Zelinsky will meet with Xi. I just don’t expect that, in the final analysis, much will come of it for the reasons outlined above.

My concluding comment: I commend this interlocutor for asking thoughtful and useful questions. Many of the exchanges I had were with people who wanted to convince me that their interpretation of the situation was the correct one. One of the common denominators of those perspectives seems rooted in fear … fear of the Ukraine crisis spilling over into nuclear strikes, fear of the U.S. government missing a chance to work with China to resolve the situation, fear of the U.S. finding itself on the wrong side of history as Brazil, Hungary, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, South Africa, India and Indonesia gravitate into a Chinese orbit. I personally do not share those fears. In fact, I believe that the surest way of avoiding any of those scenarios becoming even plausible is for us to lose the clear-sightedness and the bedrock values which have guided our reaction to Russia and China since February 24, 2021.

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