Global attention on the Russia-Ukraine conflict has sharply turned into China, the world’s second-largest economy and a complex addition to the rapidly-changing geopolitical conundrum.
The US, the world’s largest economy, is adamant that Beijing’s close bilateral relations with Moscow are a vexatious matter in the wake of rare unified Western-led economic sanctions against President Vladimir Putin’s regime. Just weeks before the war in Ukraine broke out Russia and China announced an upgraded “no limits” strategic partnership – a headache for the West that plunged the Sino-US relations to their lowest in decades.
The most discomforting diplomatic curve ball in the retaliatory war against Russia is the fact that Ukraine is not an official member of NATO, only an ally that enjoys the trappings of exclusive preferential treatment. This means the US and NATO have been unable to invoke Article 5 of the NATO charter, which refers to the notion of an attack one is an attack on all.
Washington has however been swift in beefing up the NATO territories with soldiers and weapons in Eastern Europe and the Baltic States. President Joe Biden and the US Congress hold the belief that such moves that are viewed in certain quarters as “encirclement of Russia” could deter President Putin from attacking another neighbouring sovereign state once done with Kiev, as the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has repeatedly claimed.
Although a flurry of Shuttle Diplomacy has subsided in recent weeks, bilateral talks between Kiev and Moscow continue to take place albeit virtually at times.
There can be no iota of doubt that such talks between Russia and Ukraine are worthwhile. They’ve resulted in positive outcomes such as agreement on the identification of safe escape routes for Ukrainians trapped under constant shelling that is on its fourth week.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says 3 million Ukrainians have fled into neighbouring countries such as Romania, Moldova and Poland, Moscow’s fiercest critic in the region and a NATO member who is also host to thousands of US soldiers and weaponry. Poland is also host to the majority of the refugees.
Collective punishment on Moscow has been multi-faceted and brutal. It includes targeting of oligarchs who are associated – real or perceived – with President Putin, whose wealth and assets in Western capitals has been frozen. Among the prominent victims of the US-led sanctions is one Roman Abramovich, the billionaire owner of the flourishing English Premier League club Chelsea of London. The Palace of Westminster has sanctioned Abramovich severely, and there are murmurings that Brussels could follow suit.
Yet with each passing day of the Russia-Ukraine conflict thousands of men, women and children lose their lives. There have been military casualties on both sides, although the actual numbers will surely get to be known much later in a post-conflict era.
Speculation is rife in diplomatic quarters that Russia possesses an appetite to continue with what Moscow refers to as a “military operation” in Ukraine.
On the other hand, the Ukrainians are constantly buoyed by a chorus of support and supply of weapons from the US and the European Union.
Russia’s argument of a pro-NATO Ukraine is that it poses a major threat to its national security, a claim openly laughed off by NATO’S Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg et al. Until, of course, Moscow embarked on a large military offensive. And now, a threat of nuclear war looms ever large, more so that Russia has plenty in its arsenal, but so does Western powers too – such as the UK, France and the US. It is a murky world, vividly crying out for universal leadership and evasive peace.
But instead of being frank and candid about it, the US seeks to blackmail China to fall in line with Western sanctions against Moscow. Washington’s diplomatic strategy towards China seems to be to coerce, threaten and intimidate.
Recently, the US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met with China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi in Rome to discuss, in the main, Washington’s concern that Beijing was aligning herself with Russia amidst the ongoing war in Ukraine. Yang is China’s former ambassador to the US from 2001-2005 and serves in the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party.
The US-China relations have been quite unpredictable since the era of Donald Trump, a billionaire businessman-turned-politician who loathed Chinese global rise and economic competitiveness.
After the recent Rome meeting the White House issued a short statement. It is said the meeting was tense and Sullivan raised a “range of issues”.
It is believed that among the issues raised were unequivocal warnings to China that the US would mobilise NATO and the international community to isolate Beijing should it be established that President Xi Jinping’s administration has cushioned Russia against the blow of Western sanctions.
A senior US administration was quoted as saying: “We have deep concerns about China’s alignment with Russia at this time, and the national security adviser was direct about those concerns and the potential implications and consequences of certain actions.”
It is understood that a package of threats the US spelt out to China at the Rome meeting included adverse effects on trade flows, development and transaction of new technologies as well as opening China to economic sanctions.
Only last week, US Secretary for Commerce Gina Ralmondo warned in no uncertain terms that Chinese companies that could be found to defy sanctions against Russia could be cut off from American equipment and software they need to make their products.
Meanwhile, China’s official Xinhua news agency has reported that ambassador Yang has expressed his country’s commitment to fostering dialogue in order to bring about an amicable solution to the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
Ambassador Yang was quoted as saying: “China firmly opposes any words and deeds that spread false information and distort and smear China’s position.”
Like China, Russia has also denied Washington’s claims that it has sought support from China for its military activities Ukraine.
Methinks the best Washington could, or should do is engage with Beijing on an honest and frank manner that bears the hallmarks of mutual respect.
Threats by a superpower to another superpower are ill-advised, particularly as a strategy to end a raging war in which every day and every minute a life is lost.