China is once again being criticized by the West. The reason this time is not because of ideological disagreements, or errant balloons, or events in Hong Kong or the South China Sea.
The reason this time is that China has had the temerity to initiate a peace plan to bring an end to the appalling war in Ukraine. Rather than welcoming such a positive move, the West, and the US in particular, have been scathing in their comments. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared, “China has been trying to have it both ways: It’s on the one hand trying to present itself publicly as neutral and seeking peace, while at the same time it is talking up Russia’s false narrative about the war.” He went on to assert that far from seeking to be a peacemaker, China was “now contemplating lethal assistance” to Russia.
Exactly how Blinken came to this conclusion is baffling, to say the least. China’s 12-point peace plan starts with the very clear statement that “the sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries must be effectively upheld”. Far from offering “lethal assistance”, it goes on to state that all parties must “exercise restraint”, “avoid fanning the flames” of war, and “support Russia and Ukraine in working … to reach a comprehensive cease-fire”. These are hardly the words of a government intent on becoming an arms provider for one of the combatants.
So what is the motivation behind the American condemnation of China’s peace initiative? Is it merely another example of the demonization of China and the assumption that any proposals from Beijing, no matter how sensible or altruistic, must have an ulterior, sinister motive? Such a conclusion would certainly be in keeping with current Western paranoia about China. (See my opinion piece, It’s Time for the West to Stop Demonizing China, published online in China Daily Hong Kong, Dec 21, 2022.)
There is a strange combination of arrogance and naivety in the American dismissal of China’s peace initiative. It is certainly arrogant to assume that the US has a better understanding than China on how to resolve the Ukraine crisis, and it is certainly naive to believe that China’s neutrality is not a strength in brokering a cease-fire and path toward peace. The US and the West in general have condemned China for its neutrality and for not joining them in an outright denunciation of Russia’s actions against Ukraine. The secretary-general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg, has gone so far as to say that because of this failure to denounce Russia, China lacks credibility for the role of peacemaker. There seems to be a clear lack of geopolitical reality or honesty in this stance. China has a 4,300-kilometer border with Russia, and purely in terms of its own security, it cannot be blamed too much for wanting to preserve cordial relations with its powerful northern neighbor. There is a deep and logical reason why neither of these giant neighbors would openly condemn the other and risk their own long-term security. The situation is not really that dissimilar from the good relationship that always exists between the US and Canada. Countries with long borders should always try to be on good terms with their neighbors.
Humiliation of a country in war, even when that country has been the clear aggressor, never ends well. The US and its allies would do well to remember this lesson from history before dismissing China’s peace initiative and forging ahead with greater escalation of the war in Ukraine in the hope of a decisive and humiliating defeat of Russia
Far from decrying this situation, the West should see China’s studied neutrality as a strength rather than a weakness. Western powers who have been supplying arms to Ukraine will never be seen as honest, credible or impartial peace brokers by Russia. Neutrality is key here, and contrary to Stoltenberg’s statement, this makes China uniquely well placed to be trusted by both sides. Unlike his Western backers, this truth is acknowledged by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. His response to the Chinese initiative was to welcome it and state his wish to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping to discuss further Beijing’s proposals and role as a peacemaker. Clearly, he seems to have a better grasp than some of his Western allies on the realities of what constitutes a good, trusted and impartial peace broker.
Of course, there is an alternative and equally plausible explanation for the West’s hostility to Beijing’s peace proposal, which has nothing to do with the suitability or otherwise of China as a peace broker. This more worrying explanation is that the American objective in the war is not to broker a cease-fire and negotiate peace at all, but to inflict an overwhelming defeat on Russia that would permanently weaken it and reinforce US hegemony. If the destruction of Russian power and influence in the world is America’s aim, the condemnation and undermining of China’s peace initiative makes complete sense.
If this is indeed the thinking of the US and its allies, then we are on dangerous ground. History has taught us that when a proud country is defeated to the point of humiliation, the repercussions are not good. The most obvious example is the treatment of Germany at the end of World War I. The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 imposed such harsh terms on Germany that many historians have argued that a further war was then an inevitability. The rise of Hitler’s Nazi Party in the 1930s was certainly rooted in the resentment and humiliation felt by many Germans on how they had been treated. Humiliation of a country in war, even when that country has been the clear aggressor, never ends well. The US and its allies would do well to remember this lesson from history before dismissing China’s peace initiative and forging ahead with greater escalation of the war in Ukraine in the hope of a decisive and humiliating defeat of Russia.
The author is a British historian and former principal of Sha Tin College, Hong Kong.
The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.