One year after the onset of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, China continues to assert its position as a neutral broker in the war, despite signs of its consequential alignment with Moscow. Beijing seemingly sought to institutionalize its reputation as such by publishing its “Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis,” initially announced by the office director of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Wang Yi (王毅) at the Munich Security Forum and published on the first anniversary of the Russian invasion.
The 12-point document, which echoes and expands on “China’s Five-Pronged Perseverance on [the] Ukraine Issue,” announced in March last year, calls for a ceasefire, negotiations and the termination of sanctions on Russia. This two-pronged proposal for a new approach to the situation in Ukraine points to China’s overarching objective of cementing its reputation as a neutral actor.
Nevertheless, the plan was largely criticized as unlikely to advance the cause of peace in Ukraine. The document appears to be a rhetorical exercise seeking to afford China the allure of a responsible great power without actually expending any political capital to address the ongoing atrocities — particularly as links between China and Russia remain strong.
The growing confluence of strategic interests between Moscow and Beijing is increasingly conspicuous. Last month, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke of the ongoing flows of non-lethal support from China to Russia, and pointed to new evidence suggesting Beijing could also provide Moscow with lethal weapons.
Regarding diplomatic support in international venues, China abstained on a majority of votes in the UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly, and, along with 23 other countries, voted against suspending Russia from the UN Human Rights Council, saying the vote would “set a dangerous precedent.”
At the discursive level, top officials from Moscow and Beijing continue to refer to one another as “dear friends,” as proclaimed by Wang during his recent visit to Moscow, and Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov during an address at the Raisina Forum in New Delhi.
Therefore, it is unlikely that China will begin to act meaningfully as a restraint on Russia’s aggression, and its efforts to appear as a neutral broker have mostly been futile, at least from the perspective of the Global North.
China’s high-minded pronouncements expressed in its “peace plan” can thus be best understood through the lens of “discourse power.” In the context of contemporary Chinese politics, the term “discourse power” refers to Beijing’s aspiration to set political and economic agendas, and influence global public opinion.
What is particularly important in the effective implementation of discourse power is the objective of juxtaposing China with the West: It seeks to cement the notion of China suffering reputationally from Western hegemony, including the global dominance of Western news outlets, and presents an alternative in the form of Chinese political and cultural centrality.
Consequently, by asserting its discourse power, Beijing simultaneously projects its “power to speak,” or to define and promote its alternative vision of the world order, and the “power to be heard,” or to reach audiences that will internalize this message.
As China continues to frame the issue of its perceived deficit of influence over public opinion as a developed versus developing world issue, the “power to be heard” component of its discourse power relates predominantly to Beijing’s growing ambitions to gain influence in the Global South.
This becomes conspicuous in the specific context of the announcement of China’s 12-point peace plan for Ukraine. While it was primarily rejected as inconsequential lip service in the Global North, with US President Joe Biden saying that “the idea that China is going to be negotiating the outcome of a war that’s a totally unjust war for Ukraine is just not rational,” it enjoyed a more positive reception in the Global South: For example, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen called on the global community to “take China’s proposal into thorough consideration in order to stop the fighting.”
As for any authoritarian regime, regime survival is of utmost concern to Zhongnanhai, underscoring the gravity of effective strategic communication with the domestic public. Yet, when viewed through the lens of discourse power, it becomes evident that China’s peace plan is not merely an instrument for an audience at home, but, rather, the Global South.
While this concept refers to diverse regions that are anything but a monolith, the public in the countries which comprise the Global South is growing increasingly wary of Western determination to position Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as the primary issue of concern.
At the same time, they continue to be disproportionately affected by global crises, including slow economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, rising prices of essential commodities and the climate crisis.
A recent poll by the European Council on Foreign Relations clearly demonstrates that respondents in non-Western countries, including India and Turkey, prefer a quick end to the war even if Ukraine has to concede territory. This clearly contrasts the sentiments expressed by respondents in Europe and the US, who are united in characterizing Russia as an “adversary” and supporting Ukraine in regaining all its territory, even at the cost of a more protracted conflict.
This divergence of public opinion along developmental fault lines suggests that with its seemingly more conciliatory stance, China is more likely to win hearts and minds across the Global South as it further juxtaposes itself with Western countries.
Consequently, the announcement of China’s 12-point peace plan, even if dismissed as not genuinely conducive to moving Ukraine closer toward a ceasefire, is a staunch reminder that the ongoing war is not merely kinetic. Instead, it also transpires in the information domain — a battle of narratives. In terms of perception, the chasm between the West and the Global South is widening, presenting a new window of opportunity for China to capitalize on the alienation toward the West and “winning hearts and minds” by its discourse power projection.
Amid these dynamics, French President Emmanuel Macron inculpated the neutrals in the Global South with “serving the cause of a new imperialist.” Yet, his statement instantiates the West’s compounding myopia in its strategic communications with the developing world.
Instead of political pressure, the pivotal lingering task for countries of the Global North is to first understand developing countries’ interests, needs and demands, and second, evince political will to address global crises of post-pandemic recovery, inflation stemming from systemic dependencies, and climate emergency, which directly affect them.
There is also a lesson from Taiwan. With targeted steps to support Ukraine economically, it is crucial that the country also reserves ample resources for the promotion of its flagship New Southbound Policy targeting its Indo-Pacific neighborhood. While aid for Ukraine needs to be sustained, it is also imperative that relevant actors safeguard the flows of assistance for the humanitarian and developing sectors to alleviate concerns about the repercussions of diversion of funds from other countries across the world.
Marcin Jerzewski is the head of the Taiwan Office of the European Values Center for Security Policy, and a research fellow at the Taipei and Chiayi-based Taiwan NextGen Foundation.
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