The Guardian • Issue #2015

OP-ED

China’s principled position on the war in Ukraine

Chinese temple

Photo: Dennis Jarvis – flickr.com (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states has been the express foundation of China’s response to the war in Ukraine. On that basis, China has recognised that the achievement of peace is ultimately conditional on the territorial security of both Ukraine and Russia being guaranteed. To this end, China has consistently advocated for a negotiated resolution to the conflict between Russia and Ukraine through the implementation of the principle of indivisible security – including in a broad European peace settlement.

CHINA’S STARTING POINT

Article 2 of the Charter of the United Nations stipulates that the United Nations (UN) “is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all [states]” and (in Art 2(4)) that states shall not use force “against the territorial integrity” of any state.

China’s adherence to these foundational principles has been repeatedly made clear in its statements on the war in Ukraine. In February, China’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi, outlined China’s position on the conflict in conversations with representatives of Britain, France, and the European Union. The starting point was: “China maintains that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries should be respected and protected and the purposes and principles of the UN Charter abided by in real earnest.”

In March, at the UN General Assembly Special Emergency Session on Ukraine, China’s Ambassador to the UN, Zhang Jun, said: “On Ukraine, China has always maintained that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries should be respected, that the purposes and principles of the UN Charter should be upheld […].”

China’s approach is not mere formalistic statements of principle. It is imbued with a recognition that for the principles to have effect – and peace to be achieved and maintained – there needs to be, as expressed in Article 1(1) of the UN Charter, “effective collective measures […]”. Accordingly, and notably in the context of the Ukraine conflict, China has called for “common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security”.

A NEW FRAMEWORK FOR PEACE IN EUROPE

China has repeatedly spoken of the need for negotiations between the European Union and Russia to achieve a peaceful settlement to the Russia-Ukraine conflict, including advocating for the establishment of a new framework for the maintenance of collective security in Europe.

In expounding China’s position on the war, Foreign Minister Wang Yi made it clear China recognised that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) “five consecutive rounds of eastward expansion” had raised legitimate security concerns for Russia. This impact of NATO’s expansion in destabilising the security settlement in Europe, pointed to the necessity for establishing “a balanced, effective and sustainable European security mechanism” to guarantee peace in Europe, in China’s view.

Again, speaking with the French President and German Chancellor in March, China’s President, Xi Jinping, said: “China supports France and Germany in promoting a balanced, effective and sustainable European security framework for the interests and lasting security of Europe.”

For China, it is the principle of indivisible security which should inform the construction of this new framework. Implementation of the principle would involve addressing the security concerns of Russia that have arisen from NATO’s eastwards expansion.

Speaking at a UN Security Council briefing by the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe in March, China’s UN Ambassador, Zhang Jun, said: “the world is indivisible, and security is indivisible” and highlighted that the principle of indivisible security carried “special significance under the current circumstances.” Similarly, Director of China’s Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, Yang Jiechi, spoke of the need for the parties concerned to engage in dialogue which seeks “to put in place a balanced, effective and sustainable European security architecture in line with the principle of indivisibility of security”.

In April, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that: “a balanced, effective and sustainable European security architecture should be rebuilt on the basis of the principle of indivisible security. Only by doing so can Europe truly achieve lasting peace and stability.”

SECURITY IS INDIVISIBLE

The principle of indivisible security was elaborated in the Helsinki Act of 1975 and has since been endorsed and accepted in a range of international treaties and agreements, to which the west, including the United States, have acceded, including the European Security Charter, signed in Istanbul in November 1999, and the Astana Declaration of December 2010.

Essentially, the principle of indivisible security recognises the reality that states stand in relationships of interdependence with each other – so that movement by a state/s in a particular direction necessarily implies a commensurate consequence for its neighbours. Seeking to minimise the chances of such consequences manifesting in war, the principle of indivisible security upholds the maxim that states “will not strengthen their security at the expense of the security of other states” (as expressed in the European Security Charter, for example).

In the months leading up to the war, Russia had argued in international forums for the principle of “indivisible security” to prevail as the basis for ensuring peace in Europe.

ECHOES OF HISTORY

In considering the causes of the war in Ukraine, the actions of the United States-led imperialist powers over recent decades cannot be discounted. The expansionist policies pursued by these powers through NATO pushing ever closer to the borders of the Russian Federation, ostensibly to enhance the west’s security, created a threat to Russia impossible to ignore.

With the dissolution of the Soviet Union and collapse of the socialist states of eastern Europe, the door had been opened to intensified predatory activity by, and competition between, different segments of the capitalist world, including now Russia itself, for markets, resources, and spheres of influence.

These developments were exacerbated by a range of other factors, including: the rise of China as an economic superpower; inter-imperialist rivalry between the US and the European Union; economic crises within capitalism. Contributing to the increasingly febrile atmosphere were efforts to respond to and take advantage of the challenges and opportunities presented by the global climate crisis.

On this general background, the western imperialists set their sights on Ukraine. The US and its allies invested billions in military aid to Ukraine, as a counterweight to, and possibly potential spearhead for assault on, Russia. The strategy involved the rehabilitation and integration of fascist elements into the Ukrainian state infrastructure and military.

By any objective analysis, the imminent incorporation of Ukraine in NATO, meaning the military alliance’s advance to Russia’s borders, constituted a serious threat to Russia’s security. It would have provoked Russia perceiving dangers to its existence, not unreasonably given its history (particularly the invasion of the Soviet Union during the Second World War), and would have fuelled nationalist, empire-building, or militarist agendas of the Russian government. It also effectively amounted to the more complete dismemberment of the former union between Ukraine and Russia, severing historical, cultural, economic, institutional, and even familial, bonds between the Russian and Ukrainian peoples. War became inevitable.

In outlining China’s position on the war in February, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, highlighted, in effect, how the principle of indivisible security might be applied in negotiations to bring about peace:

“China believes that the security of one country should not come at the expense of the security of other countries, still less should regional security be guaranteed by strengthening or even expanding military blocs. The Cold War mentality should be discarded completely. [And with reference to the impact of NATO’s eastwards expansion] […] Russia’s legitimate security demands ought to be taken seriously and properly addressed.” (emphasis added)

THE “RULES-BASED-ORDER” AND CHINA

The use of force by states against other states is illegal under international law, as enshrined in Article 2(4) of the UN Charter. China’s position on the war in Ukraine has been characterised by adherence to the “rules-based international order”. It is real, meaningful adherence, recognising that a necessary pre-condition for peaceful relations between states is their mutual confidence in their security. It understands that for the prohibition on the use of force by states against other states in Article 2(4) to be effective, it is essential that material realities which may be productive of conflict be eliminated or minimised.

The approach taken by the United States and its allies is in stark contrast. Historically, they have paid lip service to international law while repeatedly flouting it: think of the illegal invasion of Iraq as just one instance. It is without doubt that their efforts to consolidate and strengthen NATO, to bring other states, such as Ukraine, within its orbit, contributed significantly to undermining peaceful relations between Russia and Ukraine. Now the US-led bloc is continuing to stoke the fires of the present conflict by dispatching thousands of more troops to eastern Europe, and spending additional hundreds of millions in providing sophisticated weaponry to Ukraine, including long-range artillery.

There is another way. Surely essential to cutting the ground from under chauvinist and militarist elements in Russia and Ukraine and to providing a basis for restoration of fraternal relations between the peoples of the region, is by guaranteeing in the first place these peoples’ right to, and sense of, security in their own territory?

Most immediately, this outcome would seem to require guarantees of both Ukraine’s neutrality and no further expansion of NATO – thus ensuring Russia’s security – as part of a peace settlement.

And now NATO is turning its focus towards China. At its June Summit in Madrid, NATO adopted the position that China challenges its “interests, security and values”, and was critical of China on a number of levels including in its defence and economic policies and technological progress. It is a provocative and potentially dangerous course, and utterly antithetical to the promise of a peaceful world contained in Article 2(4).

China’s response has been to call on NATO to abandon its provocative rhetoric, Cold War mentality, and blind faith in military force. And, remembering the principle that security is indivisible, China has also called on NATO to renounce its “misguided practice of seeking absolute security, halt the dangerous attempt to destabilise Europe and the Asia-Pacific, and act in the interest of security and stability in Europe and beyond.”

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