ASIA MEDIA INTERNATIONAL FOUNDER TOM PLATE WRITES — In global diplomatic circles, what is not uttered publicly can reveal more than that which is out in the open. Perhaps no one captured this with more spice and sauce than Charles Maurice De Talleyrand-Périgord, the acknowledged French maestro of European diplomacy from the second half of the 17th century into the 18th. As he memorably proclaimed: “Speech was given to man to conceal his thoughts.”
Speech-concealment is hardly unknown in current diplomacy but for the Chinese diplomat, having to carry the burden of an alliance of some sort with Russia at a time of the latter’s gruesome humanitarian criminality in Ukraine, must be quite hard on the nerves. From China’s perspective, the problem is that any invasion, even by a presumed ally, is a blatant rejection of the PRC axiom of non-interference in the internal affairs of another sovereign state. As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi puts it, ever so mildly: “The current situation is not what we want to see.”
Keep in mind that the Moscow-Beijing relationship is not exactly as if blood brothers under the skin. Russia has not always been such a good neighbor. At a length of more than 4,000 kilometers, the dicey border between them is the world’s sixth longest – about the distance between Washington and Los Angeles. Over the last two centuries China has had to cede more territory to a bullying Russia than to anyone else. The fact is that the “new” relationship with Moscow got strung out on a far limb of an imaginary Sino-Russian romance. Yes, the wily President Vladimir Putin pulled off a minor diplomatic coup. But the Beijing-Moscow love-in was forced, phony. Even when Russia was fraternally Communist, Communist Beijing was hardly unable to turn its back on Moscow, as Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger discovered to their satisfaction 50 years ago. Let’s hope China does again.
The publicly articulated non-interference in another’s internal affairs is a red line. In some respects, leaving aside evil humanitarian crises, it is not so bad operating principle, and, though not always observed in saintly fashion, remains prominent in Chinese Communist thought. Another principle – easily defensible – is China’s stated policy of never using nuclear weapons except in retaliation for a first-strike nuclear attack. If all nations adhered to this sensible norm of no-first use, nuclear war, at least from the point of view of pure logic, would be a non-starter: No one could go first. Alas, all nations do not honor the Chinese norm. One that doesn’t is the U.S.
Regarding the Ukraine, the U.S. position is to dispatch against the invading Russians arms but no armed troops; to send jets but no pilots to fly them. Recently, I informally polled a group of more than two dozen distinguished international professionals and asked whether there was any valid justification for NATO/U.S. military intervention – whether creating a no-fly zone over Ukraine or getting down and dirty with actual boots on the ground. No one said they wanted to go there – and this is the Western consensus view. And so, the Russian-initiated war is slated to last weeks, if not months or more (even many more), assuming Ukraine resistance remains, and Vladimir Putin leaves the key to his nuclear Pandora’s Box in his back pocket.
But suppose instead the enemy’s continuing defiance – and the geographical region’s eventual warming that’ll melt hard surfaces into tank-immobilizing mud – pushes a frustrated and nervous Putin to reach into his back pocket to operationalize tactical nukes. Even an initial modest run up the first steps of the nuclear ladder would cross the international humanitarian line into unchartered zones. The infamous 1945 Hiroshima atomic bomb, by today’s nuclear metrics, would be rated merely ‘tactical’. It destroyed only one city. Today’s thermonuclear monstrosities could dramatically redefine global warming and potentially pulverize much of our planet.
The road to nuclear doomsday must be blocked. Western diplomatic thinking must expand, not tighten up, configuring a smart way to offer Putin, sane or not, a corridor to serious negotiation and peaceful settlement. To that end, all anti-war, peace-loving citizens of our imperiled planet might wish to associate themselves with the bold but sensible recent Pugwash Declaration on the Ukraine (https://pugwash.org › 2022/02/26 › pugwash-statement).This pioneering track-two, historically anti-war organization, with offices in Europe as well as Washington, has brought forth an eight-point plan of de-escalation which strikes me as the height of sanity. Here are some elements in the statement issued two weeks ago: immediate cease-fire; withdrawal from the present territory of Ukraine of all foreign military forces; recognition of autonomy for the Donbass region inside Ukraine and of the Crimea as part of the Russian Federation; in due course elimination of sanctions against Russia; clear agreement on the neutral status of Ukraine (Ukraine will not seek NATO membership); and treaty-based international security assurances for Ukraine neutrality and its economic rehabilitation.
We need to think ahead if we were not to fall behind evolving events and slide into even wider, deeper war. The West is not negotiating from weakness but, due to its commendable solidarity, from strength. It should drop the provocative NATO option for Ukraine if abandoning it provides the off-ramp that Putin requires to bury no more Ukrainian cities. Wise compromise is not cowardly. The Xi Jinping government should aim to broker a deal consistent with its core principles and reveal China as a pro-peace prime-time international player. Beijing is not the only one that can mediate but at this moment may be the best possible mediator the world has.
LMU Clinical Professor Tom Plate authored ‘Understanding Doomsday’ (Simon and Schuster), an early study of nuclear war. He is vice president of the Pacific Century Institute, a track-two pro-peace nonprofit focused on America and Asia,
and a regular op-ed commentator with the South China Morning Post, where this column appeared in its original form earlier this week.