China steps up its defense against Western positions

On May 12, the Human Rights Council (HRC) passed a resolution to appoint a Commission of Inquiry to investigate possible war crimes in Ukraine. In previous UN votes condemning Russia, China abstained. Not this time. Along with Eritrea, it voted against it—with 33 members supporting the resolution and 12 abstentions. During discussions on the Commission’s mandate, even stripped of its membership privileges, Russia could have spoken, but it chose not to. Russia’s silence went largely unreported. It didn’t go unnoticed, however.

Western capitals see it as another telling sign of a further rapprochement between Beijing and Moscow, and of how, along with other countries in Africa and the Middle East, the two powers are coordinating their pushback against Western countries’ efforts to isolate the Russian Federation.

The question of how to deal with Russia is consuming Geneva. It is now openly revealing an ideological battle that goes beyond Ukraine. We live in a post-Western world. But what was, before Russia’s February 24 invasion, abstract geopolitical reality, has now become more palpable in all its dimensions and consequences on the ground for the future of multilateralism and international cooperation.

China, Russia, and their allies are fighting what they see as the West’s use of their condemnation of the war as a means to extend their influence in the multilateral system.

During the HRC debate, Chinese diplomat Jiang Duan made it clear that Beijing would not recognize the premises behind the resolution:Regrettably, the draft resolution circulated by the pen-holding countries is neither balanced nor objective,” he said. “It fails to cover such contents as supporting dialogue and negotiations, calling for a political settlement, accommodating the security concerns of all parties, and calling to stop arms transfer. Instead of contributing to resolving the Ukraine issue in a peaceful manner by diplomatic means, it will only further escalate tensions and exacerbate confrontation,” the Chinese diplomat concluded.

The following day, China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said that a decision had shaken members’ trust in the body. Zhao said that China’s objection was due to the UN choosing to target some countries that wage war, while turning a blind eye to others.

In this tense moment, the narrative tends to obscure the fact that the condemnation of Russia is not an effort to exclude Moscow from the multilateral system, but rather to denounce its violations of the UN Charter when it decided to invade Ukraine. “We are not kicking Russia out of the system,” a senior Western diplomat tells The G|O.

On one level there is a general condemnation of the war, but beyond that, the approach is calibrated, diplomatic sources explain: the sanctions are targeted and deal with the mandate of each UN body. For instance, it is widely anticipated here that a resolution will be brought forward at the World Health Assembly (WHA) as it opens its seventy-fifth annual session on Sunday. It will condemn Russia’s attacks on hospitals, the dramatic impact on the sanitary situation in Ukraine, the breakdown in the medical supply chain, and the consequences on the Ukrainian population, including refugees. China is expected to oppose it.

China’s now overt alignment with Russia is exacerbating a rivalry with the US that the war had temporarily obscured. In Geneva, the clash has resurfaced at the WTO, in talks on the adoption of a waiver on vaccine patents. The UN and International Geneva are experiencing an unprecedented stress test. China’s decision to no longer abstain on votes about Russia will only add to it.

- JC