Response: China's intervention actually does surprise me

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Urho Kekkonen had a singular goal as President of Finland: to prevent further war from gripping Europe, much like what he'd seen growing up. At Helsinki, with a number of countries coming to negotiate terms for a new Europe, Kekkonen did just that. His negotiations and diplomacy set into motion the rules and order that would keep Europe in one piece, set aside unspoken rules of engagement, and bring up the concept that would become critical in future diplomacy — the neutral negotiator. What Kekkonen envisioned was that a neutral country would be the main intermediary in any negotiation between two countries. While that’s not always been the case, it’s been a good guiding principle for fair negotiations between two countries. The U.N. has acted similarly in the current day, with its large, unwieldy general assembly acting as an essentially neutral arbiter. All in all, these factors have helped create a sense for how negotiation ought to be considered.

However, China has now started stepping into the conflict in Ukraine. That is something that should be cause for concern. Last week, a colleague of mine wrote a piece titled, "China's Russia-Ukraine negotiations plan isn't that unexpected." She argues that China is just stepping into its role as a new superpower, similar to how it acted in past negotiations between the Saudis and Iran. The thing is, I don't believe that’s the natural step up. With Saudi Arabia and Iran, China had a pretty clear reason to intervene. They are a massive purchaser of oil from Saudi Arabia and a massive ally to Iran. China is friendly with both countries, and they don't have a regional military presence or other goals. They're not neutral in the unaffiliated sense, but they still follow Kekkonen's model for arbiters.

That is not remotely the case in the war against Ukraine. Here, China has a lot at stake, and the country has continued to display that. First, the issue of Ukrainian self-determination is a thorny issue for them, considering that the argument made by the Russians in favor of "liberating" Luhansk and Donetsk is based on the idea that those regions are agitating for autonomy — something China is unwilling to give Taiwan. If China were to acknowledge that breakaway states can form, that only strengthens the idea that Taiwan is a legitimate state. But beyond that, China isn’t a traditional negotiator in any regard. They are strongly allied with Russia (the two nations went out of their way to reiterate that recently), and they are neutral, at best, with Ukraine. China remains a purchaser of Russian military equipment, as well as an exporter of previously sold Russian technology. These two things, when combined, puts China as an obvious ally of Russia, an obviously biased party, and ill-fitting negotiator.

It’s important to discuss this, because China’s only real reason to be involved in this conflict as a negotiator is if it’s trying to do what it claims the United States does. Essentially, China is saying “if the U.S. puts its nose into a bunch of international events, why can’t we.”

That’s where things get a bit complicated. While the writer is absolutely right that this would make sense if China was a world military power — this is a military conflict, not an economic one. That’s a minor distinction to most, but it’s one that needs to be focused on. China cannot park a carrier in the Black Sea and negotiate, it can’t do much of anything. The U.S. can drop a flight ceiling, shut down the air, and stop things from happening. European countries can do similar things, and use their proximity to induce control. It’s a matter of power projection. Europe projects its military onto itself; the United States, through NATO and the U.S. Navy, projects onto most of the world. But China can’t project at all into Europe as it currently stands. These negotiations lack the motivation that would make them make sense — unless China sees this as an attempt to assert power over a region it can't reasonably control.

That’s the crux of this whole thing. It’s not that China is stepping into its role, but I believe that China is attempting to expand it. By applying their economic power into Europe, without the military projection to back it up, China is acting in a surprising way.