TOM PLATE WRITES – It is imperative that the government of Xi Jinping of China continue to edge away from the bleak dark shadow of Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine and re-settle itself geopolitically into a better moral place. While it would be presumptuous to offer instructions on how in effect to advance cause by retreating, nothing less is needed right now from the current leader of the great Chinese sovereign nation than a major walk back. Don’t run but don’t hesitate much longer to separate yourself from what is clearly wrong.
Russian-policy recalibration, it seems to me, will require less torture for Beijing than may be evident. Though rumored since the Xi-Putin meeting in early February to be zippered in Putin’s back pocket, China in fact has staked out a position ambiguous enough to allow quick movement away from the perception of complicity in the Moscow madness. From the outset it was at best tepid about the invasion, if not openly anti-war. Weeks ago, PRC Foreign Minister Wang Yi laid out the template plank, saying: “the current situation is not what we want to see.”
Dear China: Don’t backtrack from that obvious but helpful insinuation by hiding behind some moral relativism blind, or moaning anew about all the past humiliations by the West. Reminding the world of the idiotic U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, recklessly pursued without UN Security Council authorization, hardly lessens the infamy of Russia’s Ukrainian “spetsoperatsiya” of 2022. Special operation or not, it was also wholly unsanctioned by the UN. When the Security Council sought to condemn it, Russia had to play its veto card. But the play was one-handed: China, pointedly not playing along, abstained to take more time to think.
Thinking very carefully about another member state’s invasion of a sovereign state is a very good idea. Chairman Xi and his team would not appear to be doing what Vladimir Putin should have done. If the latter had, he might possibly have realized that in trying to resurrect Russia’s past glory, he had to conjure up a war not against the Ukrainian people but against all the many Nazis in the Ukraine. Just as Stalin punched Hitler on the nose, Putin imagine he would finish the job. Now that’s a task worthy of Russian honor, right?
Everyone hates the Nazis, but by his army’s apparent strategy to make on big concentration camp out of Ukraine for Russian rockets and missiles to shoot at, he has become a latter-day Nazi himself. Very clear thinking is now of the utmost importance. In a famous speech in 1945, Albert Camus made heartfelt plea after plea for a humanity of mankind that rejected gross downsizing of absolute value for short-term reasons of social engineering or, worse yet, the absolutism of racial or ethnic superiority. The French journalist, philosopher, novelist and playwright insisted: “… We must preserve intelligence…. When the Nazis had just taken power, [Nazi politician Hermann] Goering would give true idea of their philosophy by declaring: ‘When people talk to me about intelligence, I take out my revolver’…. And that philosophy spread beyond Germany.”
Without intelligence in the realm of the conduct of nations, a peaceful and stable world order is inconceivable. The Russian and American governments don’t have to manufacture a romance to settle the world’s nerves, but it wouldn’t hurt if they were not constantly at each other’s throats. We remains under the nuclear-age cloud. Tellingly enough, Putin himself recently reminded the world that if his unnecessary war doesn’t go his way, he still could put his finger on the nuclear-weapon option.
It is a sign of a man boiling amid many miseries rather than a thinking one determined to rule reason that this Russian would be so sure that he is right about the issues of the Ukraine invasion that he would risk even one chance in a hundred of bringing the world to possible nuclear catastrophe. That is not thinking it through, it is curling up and rolling toward immolation.
This is why the plea that Beijing involve itself in a responsible (if inherently daring) diplomatic intervention is precisely the best world-stage evolution imaginable for our dramatically reconstituted economic China. Very much out of character for Beijing it may be – though we can all recall how the prominent Korean Peninsula Six-Party Talks was hosted in Beijing.
China is changing, in ways the Chinese themselves may not understand. But like it or not, China is now center state in this 21st century. It can take a (perhaps wise) abstention at the Security Council, but it cannot expect that the world will believe its sincerity when the specter of World War Three surfaces unless it does something special.
Camus put this matter personally perhaps but the implications for nation-states that believe in the need to share a world of peace and stability are clear enough. “Actually, no man cab die peacefully if he has not at least once risked his own life … if he has not done what is necessary for the overall human condition to be made as peaceful as possible. … For man’s greatest temptation is the temptation of inertia….” Avoid, he added, “the world of silence; in other words, the world of violence.”
That recent long meeting in Rome between top American and Chinese foreign policy officials was anything but unimportant. It was also striking how little of substance has leaked out. The guess here would then be that both sides agreed that loose lips could sink the start of something big. That, at least, is my hope.
LMU’s Distinguished Scholar of Asian and Pacific Studies is founder of Asia Media International and a regular opinion contributor to the South China Morning Post, often ranked as Asia’s best English-language newspaper, where the initial version of this column appeared earlier this week.