Discussions / Russia's War Against Ukraine from the Perspective of the Global South

Thursday, May 09, 2024

China, Bandung, and the War in Ukraine

One year into the Russian-initiated war in Ukraine, the Chinese government issued “China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis,” a statement proposing how this war should end.[1] Several major US press outlets dismissed it as largely inconsequential. The New York Times described it as a diplomatic paper that called for peace negotiations “only in broad terms,” without clarifying how Russian claims on Ukrainian territory and Ukrainian insistence on Russian withdrawal might be reconciled. The Wall Street Journal remarked that the 12-point document “encouraged dialogue” without demanding “an immediate end to hostilities,” while implicitly faulting the US and NATO “for pursuing ‘[their] own security at the cost of others’ security,’” a view that, according to the WSJ, amounted to “support for Russia’s reasoning for waging war.” Foreign Policy considered the Chinese position paper as “too abstract to be a road map to end the war.” Questioning whether “peace in Ukraine was actually Beijing’s main motivation” in issuing the proposal, the magazine astutely surmised that among the position paper’s intended audience was the Global South.[2]

The Chinese Foreign Ministry itself presented the document as “propositions” for “ceasing hostilities, resuming peace talks, resolving the humanitarian crisis,” along with “respecting the sovereignty of all countries” and, tucked into the document’s twelve points, “abandoning the Cold War mentality.” Asked at a press conference why “China’s Position” did not call for Russian withdrawal from Ukraine, the Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson Wang Wenbin gave the ministry’s unaltering answer to demands to condemn the Russia’s act of invasion—that “the Ukraine issue has a complex historical context”—thereby justifying the Chinese unwillingness to place blame on Russia.[3]

Again and again, by insisting on the government’s neutrality, Chinese official statements avoided holding the Russian government responsible for the war. The day after the Russian attack on Ukraine began, pushed by a reporter to “consider Russia’s action an invasion,” Wang Wenbin referred instead to “Russia’s legitimate concerns on security issues,” along with condemning “the Cold War mentality” that “all should discard.” Challenged by a questioner to admit that Chinese “impartiality” was becoming increasingly ‘uncomfortable’ and ‘awkward’” as the war continued, the Ministryspokesperson, Zhao Lijian, identified the countries that “should really feel ‘uncomfortable’” as those that, “after winning the Cold War, . . . keep driving NATO’s eastward expansion five times in disregard of other countries’ security concerns.”[4]

The Defense Ministry similarly held the US and NATO responsible for the war in Ukraine, only more bluntly. Addressing a question on an anonymous US source claiming the Chinese government’s foreknowledge of Russian military preparations, the Defense Ministry spokesperson, Senior Colonel Wu Qian, redirected the questioner’s implicit critique of Chinese “tacit consent” of the invasion, pointing instead to the US as “the biggest instigator (shi zuoyongzhe)” of the Ukraine crisis, one that engaged in “creating crisis, passing on crisis, fishing for advantage from crisis.” In answer to another question, Wu Qian insisted it was the US that “played an inglorious role” in the crisis in Ukraine.[5]

Still more uninhibitedly, this outlook appeared in the online sites of the official news outlets of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), Renmin ribao (People’s Daily) and Xinhua she (New China News Agency). A People’s Daily editorial called the US a “warring empire” (zhanzheng diguo) and deemed it the unquestionable “winner” of the Russia-Ukraine conflict. The editorial charged the US for having “created the Russia-Ukraine crisis” in order to “sow discord in Russia-Europe relations, disrupt the ‘Nord Stream-2’ natural gas pipeline project, revitalize NATO, and weaken (xueruo) Russia.” Calling the war in Ukraine the “most significant geopolitical event after the end of the Cold War,” the editorial depicted it as a “geopolitical chess game” (diyuan boyi) directed against Russia by the US, and Ukraine as “unfortunately . . . the critical lever (guanjian zhuashou) for deterring Russia (eE)” that was “chosen by the US.”[6] Another People’s Daily editorial portrayed the US as “the fisherman sitting by to gather the spoils” while the snipe and the clam fought. It insisted that the US “incessantly stoked the fire of the Ukraine crisis”; took “Europe hostage” to render it dependent on the US for its energy and security needs; and induced “economic losses and refugee crises” whose costs European countries must shoulder.[7]

Xinhua News Agency, commenting in December 2022 on the “transformation of [the] international structure (guoji geju)” of global relations, asserted that by “pouring oil on fire” in the Ukraine crisis and creating “many more hindrances” in a world economy already in difficulty before the war, the US has revealed its “selfishness” and “high-handedness” (badao). Such “irresponsible behavior” and “abhorrent conduct” (elie xingjing)—shown in its “unilateralism, hegemonic rule (baquan zhuyi), Cold-War mentality, [and penchant for] playing geopolitical games”—has led many to recognize that the US was “fundamentally dislodging (dongyao) world peace and stability,” stated the commentary. According to Xinhua, “the majority of countries in the world” have expressed opposition to US actions: “numerous (guangda) developing countries [have] refused to take sides in the Ukraine crisis,” and about 160 of the nearly 200 countries in the world have resisted the US call to isolate and impose sanctions on Russia.[8]

In sum, official and quasi-official Chinese statements assign responsibility for the war in Ukraine to the US, NATO, and a still extant “Cold War mentality” that drove US-NATO actions. Perhaps the PRC’s own geopolitical ambitions—to “usurp [the] US as [the] dominant world power,” as Fox News put it in its portrayal of China[9]—motivated these views. At the same time, by insistently claiming “neutrality” and “impartiality” regarding the war, the Chinese stance also ties into the early Third-Worldist movement and the Bandung Conference, both of which articulated an ideal of non-alignment with respect to the so-called First and Second Worlds.

Referring to “underdeveloped countries,” the idea of the “Third World” at its inception in 1952 also implied the “third way” and the revolutionary potential invoked by the term “the third estate” (as Abbé Sieyès used it).[10] The Bandung Asian-African Congress of 1955 sought to give voice to Third-Word countries’ condemnation of colonialism, racism, and the Cold War—which Sukarno in his opening speech equated to fear, in particular the “fear of the hydrogen bomb.” The conference achieved little consensus, but it did agree on an ideal of “peaceful coexistence” that could loosely be read as a “Bandung project.”[11]

If the notion of a “Third World” had become “an anachronism” after 1991,[12] the conditions it described—underdevelopment, extreme poverty, and the effects of colonial exploitations—continued to be salient for a good part of the world now called “the Global South.” And if at the reconvened Bandung Conference of 2005 and 2015, the PRC emerged a global investor in Asia and Africa, and bipolarity gave way to unipolarity, “the problems the ‘Bandung movement’ sought to resolve have not disappeared,” such as those relating to violence that Arif Dirlik encapsulated as the “fear of ‘weapons of mass destruction.’” Bandung, argued Dirlik in 2015, thus remained “an ideal platform” for the PRC—promoter of economic development through its “One Belt One Road” endeavors—to showcase its vision of global cooperation as an alternative to the wars of the US-led world order.[13]

A recent New York Times article insightfully observed that the term “colonialism,” whether applied to Ukraine or to Gaza, has returned not only “as a withering accusation” against oppression, but also as an indication that envisioning “history as an East-West conflict” entailing the “march of freedom” was “losing ground to a view of it as North-South battle” involving violent extraction of resources.[14] The idea of an East-West “cultural gradient” marking the incomplete transmission of cultural and ideological norms from west to east has long been a constant in perceptions of eastern Europe and Russia.[15] But with the growing visibility of the Global South, this idea may indeed be overtaken by that of seeing the world as a “North-South” divide of development and underdevelopment. Chinese statements on Ukraine dovetailed with the “North-South” perspective. The war in Ukraine—devastating in human, economic, and ecological costs, and highlighting the spectacular failure of Russian “Atlanticist” hopes of joining the west in an alliance “from Vancouver to Vladivostok”[16]—likewise validated this perspective, if only by way of eroding the normativity of the “East-West” model of cultural and ideological diffusion.


[1] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China.

 https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/202302/t20230224_11030713.html (downloaded 12/09/2023).

[2] Chris Buckley, Steven Erlanger, and Edward Wong, “China Reprises Old Themes in Ukraine Plan, Casting Itself as Neutral,” New York Times, 24 February 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/24/world/asia/china-russia-ukraine-war.html (downloaded 12/09/2023); Chun Han Wong and James T. Areddy, “China Urges End to Ukraine War, Calls for Peace Talks,” Wall Street Journal, 24 February 2023. https://www.proquest.com/wallstreetjournal/docview/2779134128/fulltext/793557FAFB2C4B99PQ/1?accountid=13265&sourcetype=Newspapers (downloaded 12/08/2023); Jo Inge Bekkevold, “China’s ‘Peace Plan’ for Ukraine Isn’t about Peace: Beijing’s Diplomatic Overture Has Three Ulterior Motives,” Foreign Policy, 4 April 2023. https://foreignpolicy.com/2023/04/04/china-xi-ukraine-russia-peace-plan-diplomacy-global-south/ (downloaded 12/13/2023).

[3] “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin’s Regular Press Conference on February 24, 2023.” https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/2511_665403/202302/t20230224_11031269.html (downloaded 12/09/2023).

[4] “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin’s Regular Press Conference on February 25, 2022.” https://www.mfa.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/2511_665403/202202/t20220225_10645705.html (downloaded 12/09/2023). “Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Zhao Lijian’s Regular Press Conference on March 17, 2022.” https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/2511_665403/202203/t20220317_10652759.html (downloaded 12/09/2023).

[5] “Guofangbu xinwen fayanren Wu Qian Daxiao jiu Wukelan jushi youguan wenti da jizhe wen” [The Defense Ministry Spokesperson Senior Colonel Wu Qian Answers Reporters’ Questions on the Situation in Ukraine], 24 March 2022. http://www.mod.gov.cn/gfbw/xwfyr/ztjzh/4907810.html (downloaded 12/09/2023).

[6] Li Ziguo, “Guoji guancha: ‘Zhanzheng diguo’ cuisheng EWu chongtu” [International Observations: The ‘Warring Empire’ Gave Birth to the Russia-Ukraine Conflict], People’s Daily,24 March 2022. http://world.people.com.cn/n1/2022/0324/c1002–32383156.html (downloaded 12/09/2023).

[7] Zhou Zhuobin, Xing Xue, and Liu Zhonghua, “Meiguo liyong Wukelan weiji pohuaile Ouzhou wending (Shendu guancha)” [The US Is Using the Ukraine Crisis to Destroy Stability in Europe (In-Depth Observation)], People’s Daily,30 May 2022. http://world.people.com.cn/n1/2023/0530/c1002–40001706.html (downloaded 12/09/2023).

[8] Zhang Yuan, “Redian toushi: Ukelan weiji ruhe jiashu guoji geju yanbian?” (Perspectives on Hotspots: How Will the Ukraine Crisis Accelerate the Transformation of International Structure?), Xinhua Zhe, 22 December 2022. http://www.news.cn/world/2022–12/22/c_1129226904.htm (downloaded 12/09/2023).

[9] Michael Lee, “China Had Busy 2023 in Race to Usurp US as Dominant World Power: Communist Nation Spent Much of Year Positioning Itself as Global Superpower,” Fox News, 23 December 2023. https://www.foxnews.com/world/china-had-busy-2023-race-to-usurp-us-dominant-world-power

(downloaded 1/03/2024).

[10] Marcin Wojciech Solarz, “‘Third World’: The 60th Anniversary of a Concept that Changed History,” Third World Quarterly 33, no. 9 (2012): 1562–63.

[11] Arif Dirlik, “The Bandung Legacy and the People’s Republic of China in the Perspective of Global Modernity,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 16, no. 4 (2015): 615–17, 621.

[12] Solarz, 1568, 1570.

[13] Dirlik, 622–23.

[14] Roger Cohen, “History of Colonialism Rears Its Head as Conflicts Rage,” New York Times, 15 December 2023.

[15] See for example Catherine Evtuhov and Stephen Kotkin, eds., The Cultural Gradient: The Transmission of Ideas in Europe, 1789–1991 (Lanham, MD, 2003).

[16] Mikhail A. Molchanov, “Russia and Globalization,” Perspectives on Global Development and Technology 4, no. 3–4 (2005): 401–402, 405.


Chia Yin Hsu is Associate Professor of History at Portland State University. She has published journal articles and chapters in edited volumes on imperial Russian and early Soviet expansion into Northern China and the Russian Far East, including “Russian Resorts and European Leisure: Railroad Vacations, ‘Native’ Sites, and the Making of a Russian (Post)Colonial Identity in Manchuria, 1920s–1930s,” in Migration and Mobility in the Modern Age (Indiana University Press, 2017). She co-edited two anthologies on the culture of business and economic activities, The Cultural Life of Risk and Innovation: Imagining New Markets (Routledge, 2021), and The Cultural History of Money and Credit: A Global Perspective (Lexington, 2016). Her current project deals with the ruble in relation to imperial Russian and early Soviet empire-building in Manchuria and the Russian/Soviet Far East.

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