Since the invasion of Ukraine, the US State Department has probably been experiencing its busiest time ever with its senior diplomats crisscrossing the world from Asia to Africa, South America to the Far East in a campaign not only to isolate Russia but also to contain China. Western countries are mostly united in condemning Moscow, promising to support Ukraine for as long as necessary, saying “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine”, and calling for Russia to be held accountable for war crimes but they still have no diplomatic initiative to reveal.
As a matter of fact, there are no “peace plans” as such, but position papers like “China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis”. President Zelensky’s 10-point peace plan is also such a paper. Because the positions of the two sides are so diametrically opposed that no party at this stage is likely to come up with specific suggestions. At some stage perhaps, a “temporary ceasefire” could be a starting point.
On February 23, 2023, the UN General Assembly through its Resolution A/ES-11/L.7, reaffirmed its commitment to the sovereignty, independence, unity, and territorial integrity of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders, extending to its territorial waters; and reiterated its demand that Russia immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognized borders and called for a cessation of hostilities.[i]
The voting results were 141 Member States in favor and seven against – Belarus, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Eritrea, Mali, Nicaragua, Russia, and Syria. Among the 32 abstentions were China, India, and Pakistan.
However, during last February’s General Assembly and Security Council debates on Ukraine, only twelve members of the 54-strong African group, and fourteen of the 55 Asian countries, offered statements about Ukraine in either the General Assembly or the Security Council.
In brief, countries of the Global South while supporting the calls by the UN for Russia to withdraw from Ukraine, have refrained from openly taking sides but have repeatedly called for an early, negotiated end to the war. Particularly after Moscow’s suspension of the Black Sea Grain Initiative, African countries have become more vocal on peace and food security as witnessed during the recent Africa-Russia Summit held in St. Petersburg.
The reluctance of the Global South to openly take sides has led some to use the phrase “the West versus the Rest” in a deliberate overstatement to underline a certain message directed at the West, since “the Rest” does not approve of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but wants to see this grinding war with its far-reaching international implications end sooner than later.
The 78th session of the UN General Assembly (UNGA 78) will open on September 5, 2023. And the first day of the high-level General Debate will be September 19, 2023. Thus, Ukraine and the West led by the US are engaged in a campaign to ensure greater support for Ukraine among the countries of the Global South. In other words, they are seeking more than just a repeat of the voting results of UN General Assembly Resolution A/ES-11/L.7.
Thus, a two-day meeting over the weekend in Jeddah was seen as part of a diplomatic push by Ukraine to build support beyond its core Western backers by reaching out to Global South countries to help reach a solution to the conflict. The Jeddah meeting followed talks in Copenhagen in late June and a Ukrainian source reportedly said that Ukraine’s 10-point formula “received more support than in Copenhagen.”
Again, there was no joint statement after the meeting, but a European Union official said that the Saudis would present a plan for further talks, with working groups to discuss issues such as global food security, nuclear safety, and prisoner releases. It seems that a meeting of heads of state, at some stage, is also in the cards.
Among the participants of the Jeddah meeting were 20 NATO member states plus Sweden. The other participants were the host country Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Japan, Kuwait, Qatar, Republic of Korea, UAE, the UN, the European Commission, and the European Council.
China, which did not attend a previous round of talks in Copenhagen, probably because it is a NATO country, sent a representative to Jeddah triggering more interest in Beijing’s foreign policy and in its approach to the war in Ukraine. Because China, while rising as a global economic power, has refrained from getting involved in international conflicts and has remained predictable by current international standards. But this policy has also led to some criticism.
This is what Odd Arne Westad said in 2012:
“Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East need a policy by Beijing that goes beyond trade and resource extraction… The world may be tired of US interventionism, but it is certainly not ready to welcome an abstemious superpower. Most people, when crises occur, expect great powers to lead. The Middle East is bound to be a troubled region for decades, and China needs a policy that addresses the causes of the trouble and that will use economic clout to put such a policy into practice. China also needs to respond to those African leaders who will be saying, over the coming decades, that Beijing is simply following in the footsteps of the imperialists.”[ii]
And in August 2014, this was what President Obama told Thomas Friedman of the New York Times regarding China: “They are free riders. And they have been free riders for the last 30 years and it’s worked really well for them. And, I’ve joked sometimes, when my inbox starts stacking up. I said can’t we be a little bit more like China? Nobody ever seems to expect them to do anything when this stuff comes up.”
All that was before Russia invaded Ukraine.
In recent years Beijing appears to have taken a closer interest in the Middle East.
In December 2022, the first China-Arab States and China-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) summits were held in Riyadh. President Xi Jinping attended both summits.
On March 10, 2023, the “Joint Trilateral Statement by the People’s Republic of China, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and the Islamic Republic of Iran” was issued in Beijing. The Joint Statement announced that an agreement has been reached between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which includes the resumption of diplomatic relations, and the re-opening of their embassies within two months.
On June 14, 2023, President Xi Jinping held talks in Beijing with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas who was on a state visit to China.
More interestingly for both Russia and NATO perhaps, Irakli Garibashvili, Prime Minister of Georgia, visited China at the end of July where he met with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Qiang. The statement issued at the end of the visit said:
“The two sides reaffirm their respect for the sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity of all countries. Georgia firmly adheres to the one-China principle.
“The two sides highlighted that given the current international order and economic globalization, the bilateral ties between China and Georgia have gained considerable importance. Both sides regard each other as an important strategic partner and thus regard the deepening of bilateral relations as a priority of their respective foreign policies.”
In other words, China is gradually moving beyond its foreign policy prioritizing economic and trade relations. And if China and the US were to engage in further dialogue and keep their “strategic competition” within the limits of reason, the world would benefit from that.
Referring to the Jeddah meeting, the New York Times today said, “While Ukraine had not expected a peace deal to be reached, it was an opportunity to talk directly to allies of Russia, including China.” Allies? China? And which other countries? Which participant has voted against the UN General Assembly Resolution A/ES-11/L.7?
[ii] Odd Arne Westad, Restless Empire, (Basic Books, 2021), p.465.