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Mediating, not interfering

Nora Sausmikat, Leiterin China Desk der Umwelt- und Menschenrechtsorganisation Urgewald e.V.
Sinologist Nora Sausmikat heads the China desk at urgewald.

On Feb. 24, the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the PRC Foreign Ministry released a twelve-point paper on China’s position in this war of aggression. Shortly after the invasion started, there was international hope that China could decisively use its influence with Russia to mediate and bring peace.

After all, China is considered Russia’s most important ally. The war of aggression against Ukraine is also a symbol of an open struggle between political systems. Shortly after the Russian attack, Ukraine’s ambassador to Japan asked China to intervene. So the world has been awaiting China’s peace initiative for twelve months – and now this twelve-point paper has been published.

Symbol for the international stage

What it is not? It is not a clear position of official China on the war of aggression. It is neither an unambiguous pro-Russian statement nor a strong signal toward Russia to stop its war.

What it is? It is a diplomatic symbol for the international stage, which interprets the ingredients of international diplomacy according to Chinese understanding and fills them with new meaning for the war situation.

Principle of non-interference

China has long defended the concept of state sovereignty, that is, the right of sovereign states to be free from foreign interference. This would be the “guarantor of peace, security and prosperity”. However, this notion of “state sovereignty” goes far beyond the corresponding prohibitions on the unauthorized use of force and the arming or financing of rebel movements enshrined in the UN Charter.

For China, this principle of international law is tantamount to “non-interference”. Because China routinely labels even mere remarks about its domestic policies – not to mention criticism of its human rights track record – as an unacceptable form of “interference” in its state sovereignty. This is the stance China seeks to establish on the global diplomatic stage.

This is highly dangerous, particularly when it comes to crimes against humanity and other offenses under international law – as currently committed by Russia in Ukraine. A unified international response to atrocities committed by Russia in Ukraine, which is clearly the case under international law, has thus also been prevented for the past year by Chinese pro-Russian positions.

China rejects universal understanding of human rights

From the Chinese point of view, the twelve-point paper is a logical consequence of the massive reshaping of universal ground rules to suit national interests that has been going on for the past ten years. Take human rights, for example: The emphasis on state sovereignty, non-interference in internal affairs, and the right to economic development as a human right above all other rights threatens to weaken the entire international human rights system as well as norms on transparency and accountability. China rejects the idea of universal human rights that go beyond national sovereignty and concern the international community as a whole.

In the twelve-point paper, China emphasizes the importance of territorial sovereignty for all countries. A small difference from state sovereignty with big consequences. This could entail recognizing Russian-annexed territories as Russian. Ultimately, this can also mean creating conditions that entail changing Taiwan’s status. But it may also mean – and this is rather unlikely – that China ends up condemning the invasion of a sovereign country like Ukraine.

What the twelve-point paper also is: An offer by China to act as a mediator, a call for dialogue and compromise – under the premises of a reinterpreted international law. China advocates a cease-fire and the resumption of peace talks.

Beijing’s interests

The twelve points also reflect China’s pragmatic interests: supply chains should once again operate reliably, the Eurasian continent must be kept stable for this purpose, and the United Nations Security Council should cease sanctions against Russia. Dialogue and negotiations are the only solution, not sanctions, it says. It is important to remember that Ukraine is an important transit country for the Silk Road and a key military and grain supplier to China. Point 9 of the twelve-point plan specifically mentions the Black Sea Grain Initiative, which should be continued.

Now, one year after the start of the war, supply chains, financial flows and energy transport routes between Russia and China have been consolidated. In the global competition for spheres of influence to secure (energy) raw materials, loyalty pledges are becoming increasingly important in the systemic rivalry. China now once again signaled that it stands ready for rebuilding. Xi Jinping gives Ukraine hope.

Reshaping the international order

And Ukraine is acting accordingly: At last fall’s 51st session of the UN Human Rights Council, it abstained from voting on the draft resolution, which envisaged a debate on the situation in Xinjiang at the next session in March. In the end, the result of the vote was very close, with 17 votes in favor, 19 against and 11 abstentions.

This twelve-point plan is supposed to stem the global saber-rattling through goodwill. Foreign Minister Qin Gang warned against further arms deliveries. Beijing’s global security strategy was published alongside the twelve-point plan. It is intended to establish an alternative system to NATO. Both papers are building blocks for reshaping the international order.

Nora Sausmikat holds a habilitation in sinology and heads the China desk at urgewald, the campaign work on the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as well as the Asian Development Bank. Aside from her focus on the two banks, she analyzes China’s global role, particularly in the areas of climate and human rights policy. This text was first published in the German newspaper taz on March 3, 2023.


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