Coral Bell, the great Australian political thought-leader had lucidly described in the 1970s how a "crisis-slide" could become unstoppable as it morphs into a catastrophe: "Gradually, imperceptibly but inevitably there is a build-up of events", she writes, "rain falls in ever increasing volumes... becomes progressively more irresistible... until the dam breaks". Ideally, the crisis management process should have been put in place as soon as the relevant observer notices the rains grow heavy, she argues; the disaster of the bursting dam was owed to the delay. A simple but profound metaphor, so apt for crises in international relations, also underscoring the challenge of the choice of appropriate timing for leaders.
The conflict in Ukraine is fast becoming the torrential rainstorm threatening to immerse peace and stability, in Europe and in the world. This became evident last weekend when the Russian military took the battle to NATO's doorstep by launching a ferocious missile attack at a large army training base in western Ukraine, less than 25 km from the border with Poland, a NATO member. Russia has alleged that the base provides training for mercenaries and transhipment for 'foreign' (read NATO) military ware in support of Ukraine. The incident has put NATO on a knife edge. Any spillage of this incident into Polish territory would have triggered the famous Article 5 of the NATO pact. It is the application of the 'Three Musketeer-ian' principle of "All for one and one for all", in other words, a war against one is a war against all. NATO would then directly collide with Russia, which President Joe Biden of the US has with incontrovertible logic defined as "World War 111".
We are in a situation far past the point of initial detection of a possible major "crisis-slide" in the Bell proposition. On this occasion the key protagonists are so powerful that potential crisis-managers, or a peace-maker, with the necessary clout and influence would be in short supply. President Emmanuel Macron of France, President Recep Erdogan of Turkey and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett of Israel took turns in having a go at it but were unable to make the cut. Clearly a heavier weight with greater influence was required. Eyes are already beginning to turn towards a candidate which seems to be fitting the bill. And that is China.
But why so?
There are several reasons. First, with the world's largest population of 1.4bn, the second largest economy of US $ 18.1 trillion (after the US) and objectively the third strongest military (after the American and Russian), China is the fastest growing nation in power terms in the globe. Its "Zhang Guomeng "or "China dream" sees itself as a soon-to-be peer of the US. Its "Belt and Road Initiative" has carried its influence to much of the world's nook and corner. China's demonstrated resilience across many spheres, including its handling of the pandemic, has proved its administrative skill and efficacy. Despite many challenges, China has set for itself an ambitious 5.5 per cent target for economic growth this year. Despite its democratic deficit and doubtless authoritarian governance, it has earned for itself plaudits if not praise, albeit oftentimes grudging, from most global actors.
China is also in the unique position of enjoying a very close proximity to Russia. Their leaders Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have met each other thirty-eight times. In February, when Putin visited Beijing for the inaugural of the Winter Olympics, he and Xi signed a 5000 word document pledging "no limits" support to each other, at a time when the Ukrainian crisis was brewing. Indeed, received wisdom has it that Putin delayed his so-called "Special security operation" to humour Xi who did not want any major impediments to the smooth progress of the games, already under the West's diplomatic boycott. The animus of the West was driving China obviously into Russia's bearhug. Furthermore, the added attraction was that in this partnership the Chinese dragon was the senior vis-à-vis the Russian bear. The Chinese, as they usually do, must have thought through this at length having weighed all the pros and cons. They are not normally wont to take such major decisions in a fit of frenzy. Nor are they likely to backtrack from it easily, again without studied reflection.
Second, the sanctions slapped on Russia are hurting. But not Russia alone. Both sides of the divide, the West and Russia are being affected. Should Russian oil and gas supply to Europe stop in its entirety, energy price in Europe would skyrocket: "Currently there is no other way (apart from Russian sources) to secure Europe's supply of energy to generate heat, for mobility, and for power supply", German Chancellor Olof Scholz has said. The absence of Russian and Ukrainian wheat would translate into rapid rise in food price. Just as necessity is the mother of invention, compulsion is the driver of change. Blocking Russia out of the global financial system would mean it would be forced to create alternatives. Though difficult, with Chinese help it could be possible. A group of sanctioned countries would be happy to join up the alternative arrangements. China, already under western sanctions though not decoupled as yet from the western system would be interested in building up requisite resilience. Moreover, sanctions hit the poor more, and so if the purpose is to turn the populace against government, history shows so far it has caused people to turn the other way. Squeezing Germany at the +Versailles Treaty after the first World War was undeniably a major cause for the Second.
It has been said, the sanctions could put the Russian economy back thirty years. That may not be cause for rejoicing. It could push the Russian authorities to desperate actions, and when a country with a nuclear arsenal as large as Russia's is driven to that point, the consequences could be enormously unsettling. It would be worse were Russia were to be joined by a disgruntled China, with North Korea in tow.
Third, despite the signing of the February accord between Putin and Xi, China has behaved with cool and hard- nosed circumspection. At the United Nations Beijing has abstained on voting on the resolutions condemning Russia, rather than oppose it. Part of the reason could be China may have while negotiating on the drafts helped tone down the language. But it was mainly because it did not wish to convey that there was no daylight between Beijing and Moscow. By such actions as these China was, apart from not impacting too negatively on its economic ties with Europe which it values, retaining a manoeuvrability in dealing with the crisis. The Chinese, who always tend to see the big picture, are deeply concerned about the broader implications of the war. Premier Li Keqiang has said that "the most pressing task now is to prevent tensions from escalating and getting out of control. A pragmatic China needs a conflict-free world to reach its goal of a "new kind of relationship between the two big powers" (i.e., China and the US).
The American structural realist John Mearsheimer, normally seen as a strong right-wing voice in the US foreign policy circles once said in Beijing that he was happy to be with "his own kind", in acknowledgment of Chinese policymakers' (according to him) penchant for realism. A constructive role in the resolution of the current crisis, rather than using it to deepen anti-western nationalist sentiments in China will enable Beijing to calm their neighbourhood in Asia in general and South China Sea in particular. Even with India, the common position at the UN could be translated into a better understanding, though too much need not be read into it. Already Ukraine itself has reached out to China. At Kyiv's request Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba phoned his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi. Thereafter the China's Xinhua News Agency reported that Kuleba has said Ukraine "stands ready to strengthen communication with the Chinese side and looks forward to China's mediation in achieving Ceasefire"!
These factors suggest China would be in a sweet spot to undertake the effort to facilitate de-escalation. This is not to say it would do so, unless it sees the initiative, in line with any other country, as being in consonance with its perceived national self-interest. In a previous essay I have argued that we may be heading for a tripolar world which will likely be led by the US, China, and Russia. China as a potential newcomer in such a role will need to be doubly careful. The end of the Ukrainian war will not be the end of the crisis. China will need to prepare for the possibility that after Russia, it could be its turn. It, too, has a red line: Taiwan. In that scenario, it is not the West but to Russia it will need to turn for solace and succour. Beijing could, therefore possibly have a two-fold goal: first, in the short term help to put out the conflagration in Ukraine; second, in the long run prepare to combat the greater contradiction that it will likely face in the unfolding of history.
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is the Honorary Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, NUS. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President and Distinguished Fellow of Cosmos Foundation. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg
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