As is common knowledge, the Euro-Maidan coup of 2014 in Ukraine was a prime flashpoint for the current military engagement between Russia and Ukraine, the recent military incursion is a new and decisive phase of an already ongoing conflict. It is also common knowledge that for the past eight years, the ethnic Russian population of the Donbass region in the east of Ukraine have been under distinct types of military attack by the Ukrainian armed forces, including shelling. Reports show that roughly 14,000 people have been killed since the conflict started eight years ago.
Moscow’s rationale for the recent actions are to protect the ethnic Russians in the Donbass region and to ‘demilitarize’ and ‘denazify’ Ukraine as a whole, the latter of which is a term that was used by the Allied forces during World War II when attempting to rid Germany and Austria of Nazi influence. It is also important to note that the transitional Ukrainian government post-Yanukovich was dominated by ultra-nationalist elements like Svoboda and the Azov Battalion. These elements spearheaded attacks against the Donbass region where people rejected the ultranationalist composition of the incoming government.
Ukraine is considered the breadbasket of Europe due to having the most fertile lands on the peninsula, as well as having high volume agricultural production to various parts of the world including Africa, which accounted for $2.9billion of Ukrainian agricultural exports in 2020. China also has important bilateral trade with Ukraine which stood as $9.783billion as at 2012 with $1.85billion accounting for Ukraine’s export to China while $7.92billion represented imports from China to Ukraine. Furthermore, the two countries have also had expanded cooperation between their respective military industrial complexes with various military technology construction contracts concluded.
China’s Position – Then and Now
China has so far professed a strong adherence to the international policy of non-intervention, a policy that has been demonstrated and equally challenged in Beijing’s relations with its African counterpart. While China generally avoids getting involved in ‘internal affairs,’ Beijing is also known to act when interests – economic or otherwise are directly threatened, like the evacuation of its citizens during the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, opposition to sanctions against Khartoum during the Sudan war, or the decision to establish its first overseas military facility in cooperation with the government of Djibouti.
The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam was another context demonstrating Beijing’s commitment to non-interventionist policies and preference for diplomacy. The economic relation between China and the disputing parties of the Nile River project brought forth the challenges to be confronted when trying to balance the legitimate concerns of its partners. Coming to contemporary times, as Beijing is fast becoming a crucial actor in global politics, its un/willingness to engage directly in conflict and security issues will continue to define the limits of its non-interventionist policy, a position that will show the dilemma that exists between principle and pragmatism.
Casting an eye back to the start of the Ukrainian civil war in the Donbass region, gives a chance to compare or contrast Beijing’s positions between 2014 and 2022. The tensions prior to the collapse of the Yanukovich government brought a thick cloud over the economic relations between the Ukraine and China, also China’s prospects for development projects in the Ukraine and Crimea were increasingly uncertain. In familiar form, China’s Foreign Ministry showed restraint with an official position that stressed Beijing having no intentions to interfere in Ukrainian domestic politics and was ready to maintain friendly dialogue and cooperation.
Consequently, Beijing’s diplomatic rhetoric through its media shifted when the then “U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland flew to Kiev and offered support to protesters in Independence Square, joining the league of the opposition demanding the fall of democratically-elected President Viktor Yanukovich” according to reporting by XinhuaNet. The media agency went ahead to state that open interference of EuroAmerican powers raised the thoughts of outdated zero-sum thinking which would lead to a lose-lose situation.
Contrary to the beliefs of EuroAmerican ‘experts’, the relationship between China and Russia is one of mutual respect and not of one where a party dictates terms to the other and once again the US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland ‘called’ on China to use its influence with Russia to ‘urge’ diplomacy vis-à-vis the military situation. China’s position in refusing to openly critique Russian actions is not unique seeing that the members of the BRICS alliance are not doing choosing instead to hold their positions, with Bolsonaro of Brazil even saying that he was in solidarity with Russia. China has so far reiterated its non-interventionist stance, Chinese newspapers and analysts alike have pointed out various points on the wider factors of the conflict including; accusing the US govt of provoking Russia by holding open the possibility of Ukraine joining NATO; the lack of respect that the US govt showed for Russian need for security guarantees or Ukrainian neutrality, and the view that Beijing sees the incursion as an act of self-defense by Russia, meaning it would not describe it as an invasion.
The African Dimension
It is crucial that the average African not get sucked it to the media blitz and overwhelming propaganda because as the popular saying goes “In War, truth is the first casualty.” Attention should be drawn to the plight of the innocent African businessmen and women, students of all stripes who are sheltered in bunkers or trekking long kilometers towards various borders in search of safety. Attention should also be on the action or lack thereof from the various African missions in the surrounding Eastern European countries as it concerns the people seeking sanctuary.
In this context, China-Africa relations is not being tested or challenged in any new way because various countries on the African continent have witnessed the boundaries of China’s non-intervention policy. Furthermore, Chinese participation in various peace missions in Africa also show that African leaders and policy makers are aware of the precise conditions under which Beijing will commit resources that exceed diplomatic rhetoric.
African policy makers should instead look inward and wonder why even though it is on record with having the largest arable land globally, a drop in Ukrainian grain imports will disrupt internal food prices. European energy markets are also tense under the fear of any interruption because most of central and eastern Europe depend on Russian energy sales and Ukraine as an important energy transit point. In this particular regard, it is interesting that next to no media attention is given to the fact that Nigeria, Niger and Algeria have signed a 4,128km gas project that will carry gas from Warri, Nigeria to Hassi R’Mei, Algeria, ultimately to European markets.
USAFRICOM is still carrying out strikes in Somalia to no fanfare, and still supporting the Saudi offensive against Yemen. China-Africa relations were never perfect, no geopolitical relations are perfect and it is imperative that on the institutional level, efforts be put towards actualizing the aspirations of the just concluded 35th AU summit, also the policy makers and analysts face immediate structural issues plaguing African workers because, more times than not, Africans are chillingly reminded that amidst the bi/tri/multi-lateral discussions and negotiations, when push comes to shove, we are on our own.