China’s Chance to Lead a Humanitarian Effort in Ukraine

By Joseph DeTrani

Ambassador Joseph DeTrani is former Special envoy for Six Party Talks with North Korea and the U.S. Representative to the Korea Energy Development Organization (KEDO), as well as former CIA director of East Asia Operations. He also served as the Associate Director of National Intelligence and Mission Manager for North Korea and the Director of the National Counter Proliferation Center, while also serving as a Special Adviser to the Director of National Intelligence.  He currently serves on the Board of Managers at Sandia National Laboratories.  The views expressed represent those of the author.

OPINION — China’s annual National People’s Congress (NPC) opened on March 5 with Premier Li Keqiang presenting an upbeat annual Government Work Report that stressed stability, with plans to maintain a growth rate of 5.5 percent in 2022, a 7.1 percent budget increase for the military, saying the armed forces must “comprehensively deepen training and preparation for war.”  Given that Premier Li’s portfolio does not deal with foreign affairs, he did not comment on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, only saying the Chinese government would “together with the international community, make greater contributions to implement world peace and stability.”

At the NPC press conference on March 7, Foreign Minister Wang Yi stressed China’s respect for the “sovereignty and territorial integrity” of all countries, parroting comments he made at the 58th Munich Security Conference last month, when he said the “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of any country should be respected and safeguarded – and Ukraine is no exception.”

At the press conference, Foreign Minister Wang went on to say that “China is willing to continue playing a constructive role in urging peace talks and is willing, when necessary, to work together with the international community to launch required mediation.”  In response to a question, Wang made it abundantly clear that China’s relationship with Russia was unshakable.  On March 2, China abstained on a United Nations General Assembly resolution reprimanding Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

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As China prepares for the 20th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the autumn of 2022, when President Xi Jinping will seek a third five-year term as General Secretary of the Party and President, he and the CCP must be concerned that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a sovereign, independent nation, will adversely affect China’s relationship with Ukraine, the European Union, and the United States — all important trading partners.  And despite Russia and China’s efforts to prevent information and pictures documenting the inhumane bombing of Ukrainian hospitals, schools and civilian residences, the people in Russia and China eventually will have access to this information and will question why Putin recklessly invaded a Slavic neighbor and why China did not condemn Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin must realize that he’s losing this war because the Ukrainian people won’t surrender and are intent on fighting for their freedom. The United States has rallied NATO, the European Union, and the world, to stand up to Russia’s brutal and savage invasion of Ukraine. With unprecedented sanctions imposed on a revanchist Russia, mired in an invasion that’s killing thousands of innocent Ukrainians and thousands of Russian soldiers, the civilian populations in both Russia and China will wonder how their leaders are justifying such horrific attacks against a Slavic neighbor.

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Based on Putin’s past behavior — in Grozny when the Chechen capital was destroyed in 1999, killing tens of thousands of civilians, and in 2016, when the Russian-Syrian coalition committed war crimes during the aerial bombing of Aleppo — it’s likely the Russian President will double down and intensify the military onslaught in Ukraine, indiscriminately killing civilians and destroying towns and cities. It also appears unlikely that any of Putin’s advisers — the Minister of Defense, Director of the FSB, Director of the SVR, the National Security Adviser, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, or the many oligarchs whose assets are being seized by the U.S. and Western Europe – will be able to convince Putin that halting the invasion and seeking a face-saving exit is in Russia’s best interest. 

Putin placed his nuclear forces on alert in response to sanctions from the West.  He warned that interference would spark consequences “never before experienced in your history.”   Even the mention of nuclear weapons must be of concern to Ukraine and all nations.

Given China’s strategic partnership with Russia, and Putin’s relationship with Xi Jinping, this would be an appropriate time for China to convince Putin that it’s time to seek a face-saving end to the war in Ukraine.  Foreign Minister Wang Yi said China is prepared to act as a mediator between Ukraine and Russia, and this is what Wang Yi, as Foreign Minister, should do.  An end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, before there’s further significant escalation and casualties, is needed now.  It’s in China’s interest to take on this humanitarian initiative.

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