China can act decisively, from leading G20 ceasefire negotiations to humanitarian aid to countries hosting Ukrainian refugees

My recent comment ( sparked strong arguments on both sides of the increasingly controversial debate over Ukraine’s horrific war. While most in the West recognize the need for extraordinary actions in extraordinary times and agree that China has an important role to play in resolving the conflict, those sympathetic to Russia’s concerns over border security and enlargement from NATO that China has no reason to make an effort. But both posed the obvious and important follow-up question: What exactly can China do to restore peace and stability in Ukraine?

China can take the initiative in three key areas. For starters, Chinese President Xi Jinping should call for an emergency summit of G20 leaders aimed at achieving an immediate and unconditional ceasefire in this conflict and developing an agenda for a negotiated peace. The G20 is now the recognized forum for global action in the midst of a crisis, having sparked support from the world’s leading economies in late 2008 for a coordinated response to the global financial crisis. Both China and Russia are members, so the G20 can play a similar role today. As a demonstration of his personal commitment to this effort, Xi could be thinking of breaking his post-pandemic lockdown protocol (he hasn’t left China in 24 months) and attending the meeting in person — just like Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Second, China can make a substantial contribution to humanitarian aid. With children making up at least half of the more than two million refugees from Ukraine (a number expected to rise quickly to at least four million), the need for humanitarian aid to neighboring host countries is no doubt acute. China should make a no-obligation donation of $50 billion to UNICEF – the United Nations Children’s Fund – the world’s largest aid agency for children in need.

Third, China can support Ukrainian reconstruction. Russia’s brutal bombings were aimed at destroying Ukraine’s urban infrastructure. The Ukrainian government currently estimates the loss of war-related infrastructure in the $100 billion range, a figure that could rise in the coming days and weeks. Reconstruction will be an urgent but very difficult task for a country that in 2020 was ranked 120th in the world in terms of GDP per capita (based on purchasing power parity). China should use its unparalleled focus on modern infrastructure to provide specific post-conflict support to Ukraine, including but not limited to infrastructure-related activities of its Belt and Road Initiative (of which Ukraine has been a member since 2017) and the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. This is China’s Marshall Plan moment.

The plan I propose is far from perfect. But while Ukraine is on fire and its people, especially its children, suffer unfathomable hardships, it certainly defeats the alternative of prolonging this tragic war. Yes, it can put China in an awkward position. But leadership is never easy. With Europe on the brink of a war like it has not seen in 75 years, now is the time for China to seize the opportunity. And make no mistake: this war is not just about Europe. Unlike World War II, this conflict has set two nuclear superpowers on a path of dangerous confrontation, with – as Putin himself put it – “consequences … such as you have never seen in all your history.”

Only China can bring Putin to his senses. He is fearless in the face of the brutal sanctions of the West. As a result, the Russian economy is on the verge of imploding. Without the backing of Russia’s more than a month-old “unlimited” partnership with China, that will happen sooner rather than later. China is far more important to Putin than any pain caused by Western sanctions.

Moreover, the potential collateral damage China faces if it continues to prioritize its partnership with Russia over its broader responsibilities for world peace is becoming increasingly apparent. As the West continues to ramp up its bet on draconian sanctions against Russia, senior US officials are now openly discussing China’s debt by association, just as I warned. China must act quickly to avoid this possibility – before it falls in the crosshairs of rapidly spreading sanctions.

For a deeply principled nation, the choice is actually very clear. Since the days of Zhou Enlai in the mid-1950s, China has remained steadfast in its commitment to the five principles of peaceful coexistence, including respect for national sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, and non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a clear violation of these sacred principles. There is no room for China to refine that conclusion while staying true to its core values.

Of course, as underlined in its recent partnership deal with Russia, China has expressed concerns about NATO’s expansion and Russia’s border security. Again, this is where China can take the lead in raising these concerns in an emergency G20 forum. By taking a leading position, China will have ample opportunity to play the role of honest broker in balancing the risks and resolving this debate. But first the war must end.

Xi has been determined and methodical for the past decade in charting a new path for China. At times, his rhetoric has soared, steeped in aspirations of rejuvenation after a century of humiliation, superpower status for a “modern socialist nation” by 2049, and, more recently, “common prosperity” for the world’s largest population. But at some point, the rhetoric starts to sound hollow. This crisis calls for more than slogans and promises: it’s China’s chance to show that it is ready to act and take action for its long-sought goal of responsible global leadership.

That may raise difficult questions for the rest of the world. But that’s our problem. After all, we in the West have not done a particularly good job of preventing this tragedy. The message must be repeated: only China can stop Russia.

The author is a faculty member at Yale University and past president of Morgan Stanley Asia

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2022

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