While Western leaders rally around Zelenskyy, China demonstrates its power to disrupt

Since its inception during the Cold War, the annual Munich Security Conference has sought to provide a space for solidifying, and in some cases renewing, the transatlantic relationship. At this year’s gathering that mission took on critical importance. Successive Western leaders took to the stage to proclaim unity in the face of Russian aggression and to call for more resources and – yes – more military equipment for Ukraine. The largest ever Congressional delegation from the United States to Munich was also designed to demonstrate that both Republicans and Democrats are committed to standing with the Ukrainians for as long as it takes.

Over the past decade, Munich has also opened up its stage to some of the transatlantic alliance’s most troubling adversaries - most notably Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and former Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif. Delegates took their seats to hear their familiar berating of the West for its double standards or the critique of Western interventions in Kosovo and Iraq. Their fiery speeches had become a fixture of the Munich experience.

Not so this year. Instead of providing a platform for Minister Lavrov’s version of history and the Iranian regime’s defence of its foreign policy, Conference organizers featured a poignant exhibition on Russian war crimes in Ukraine and a roundtable discussion with some of Iran’s most passionate opposition activists.

But that did not mean Western countries were let off the hook. The other story at Munich was the address by one of China’s top foreign affairs officials, state councillor Wang Yi, who not only outlined his country’s vision of international order - which included the familiar Chinese priorities of respect for the UN Charter and the pursuit of peaceful development – but also a pointed critique of the transatlantic alliance, and particularly the US. Mr. Wang’s calm and cool delivery may have lacked the drama and bravado of a Lavrov or a Zarif, but in many ways it reflected a more profound challenge to Western foreign policy – both in Ukraine and beyond.

Although on the surface Mr. Wang underscored some of the same principles as Western leaders and diplomats, they were directed at a different purpose. For Chancellor Scholz and President Macron, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity meant arming Ukraine against a state that had flagrantly violated those long-standing principles. For China, however, they meant something quite different.

First, that countries should refrain from “stoking tensions” or “adding fuel to the fire” by taking sides in the war or arming one of the belligerents. And second, that Chinese territorial integrity must be respected, by adhering to the One China policy. Here, Mr. Wang insisted, it was the West, and not China, that was trying to change the status quo. To the delegation from Washington sitting close to the stage, he firmly underlined that China would not allow Taiwan to become an independent country.

Whereas Iran and Russia once appeared to many in the West as the great disruptive powers in the international system, this year’s Munich Security Conference was yet another indicator that we have entered a new world. As Russia’s dream of great power status fades - quickly becoming, as Emmanuel Macron scathingly put it, “just an exporter of oil” - it is China now stands as the main alternative to the West. It portrays itself as the guardian of the UN Charter, international cooperation, and the peaceful resolution of disputes, and the West as the new disruptor. Indeed, Wang Yi attempted to take the high road on the so-called balloon crisis by describing the response of the US as hysterical and excessive, and its own behavior as calm and measured.

Along the same lines, China claims to be the voice of reason on the war in Ukraine – one that finds a receptive audience in the Global South. While there was a small contingent from the Global South at Munich, its representatives left little doubt that they seek an end to the war and the economic and food security crisis that has come in its wake. Macron was rare among Western leaders in openly broaching the topic of negotiation and what comes after the war. Yet he also insisted this was not yet the hour for dialogue.

China, by contrast, is speaking directly and consciously to Global South concerns. And over the coming weeks, that voice will grow even louder, as China tables a plan to establish the parameters of a political settlement to the crisis just beyond NATO’s eastern border. Signs indicate that China will not only reiterate its call to respect territorial integrity and refrain from any threat or use of weapons of mass destruction, but also argue for the provision of security guarantees to Russia. In so doing, it will challenge the West to engage on a sensitive and potentially divisive topic that Western capitols had hoped to postpone. Call it disruptive power, Chinese style.

Professor Jennifer WelshAbout the Author

Jennifer Welsh is the Canada 150 Research Chair in Global Governance and Security at McGill University, and Director of the Centre for International Peace and Security Studies. From 2013-2016, she was Special Adviser to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon.

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