China has cast its vote of abstention for the United Nations General Assembly resolution that deplores Russian "aggression" in Ukraine. As horrendous as the war in Ukraine is the set of complex reasons and causes that led up to the war still need to be pointed out, not all of which can be entirely attributed to the Russian side. The Chinese government's official statements have repeatedly affirmed this point.
Like many other countries, China has not announced any sanctions against Russia. China's non-sanction policy is more than motivated by its perception and analysis of the causes leading up to the war. The non-sanction camp– which includes all the BRICS members and ASEAN countries barring Singapore; almost all of South America, sub-Saharan Africa and Central Asia; and the bulk of the Middle East and North Africa region –is no small minority in the international community. Major economies like India, Brazil, Indonesia, and NATO member Turkey have not announced sanctions.
China, with its unique status in the global economy in terms of trade and the yuan's expanding role as a major trade settlement currency, has been singled out by the United States with the threat of secondary sanctions. U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said there will be implications and consequences if China "attempts to help Russia evade sanctions." In a video call with Chinese President Xi Jinping, U.S. President Joe Biden made clear that there would be "consequences" if China provides "material support to Russia." So the matter boils down to the exact meaning of "material support."
An interpretation of what exactly "material support" means may be found in U.S. State Department spokesperson Edward Price's words in a recent press conference. Arms sales to Russia may well be regarded as "material support."Using China's international payment system CIPS to circumvent SWIFT, especially for dollar-denominated transactions, may also belong to the "material support" category. And last, a dramatic increase in Sino-Russia trade is probably also "material support."
We can use a "but-for" counterfactual approach to assess Sino-Russia trade, and ask this question: Had the war not happened, would this trade have still taken place? Last year Sino-Russia trade increased by about 36 per cent. So an increase of up to 50 per cent this year might have been fairly reasonable had this war not happened.
Washington is attempting to promote a narrative that China's decision not to impose sanctions is the same as siding with Russia. This narrative appears to have been only applied to China, not the other non-sanction countries. This argument should be rejected by the British experience during the entire 19th century when London adopted what historians called a "splendid isolation" foreign policy with respect to the constant conflicts and wars on the European continent. That is, Great Britain didn't side with any state, nor any alliance on the European continent, but still maintained a normal trading relationship with each one of them.
This position of neutrality is a valuable history lesson for us today. But of course, we should rise above the 19th century British realists with a dose of 21st-century moralism. Today, I call on all countries, like China, that would like to stay out of this mess in Europe, to adopt a policy of "principled neutrality" that should include at least the following four aspects:
1. Principled neutrality strives for peace, the least of which means restraint from actions that could directly contribute to military fighting in Ukraine, obviously including sales of arms to both sides as well.
2. Principled neutrality calls for proactive actions to mediate a truce and a peaceful political solution in Ukraine.
3. Principled neutrality strives for the welfare of ordinary citizens in both Russia and Ukraine. Historically, sanctions kill more people than war, due to life hardship, starvation, denial of access to medical supplies, etc. That means maintaining normal trade relationships with both Russia and Ukraine is absolutely justified, not just on economic grounds but also on moral grounds.
4. Principled neutrality calls for humanitarian assistance to the war-affected people in Ukraine, both Ukrainians and Russians, based on the United Nations humanitarian aid principles, i.e., humanity, neutrality, impartiality and independence.
The debate about China's stance in this war is not so much about being on Russia's side or on the Ukraine-U.S.-ally's side. The international community needs to judge whether Beijing's actions are on the side of peace, humanity and China's own national interests. A policy of "principled neutrality" meets all of these objectives.