China, Russia and the Munich Security Conference

The meeting of senior politicians, military officers and diplomats from all over the world came at the 19th session of the Munich Security Conference between February 17-19, 2023, to review the European security scene towards Ukraine, whose features have changed due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But, in my opinion, the Munich Security Conference did not come out with binding decisions except a series of promises regarding Ukraine’s military support, and an agreement to hold Russia accountable for accusations they described as war crimes committed during the war, which is approaching its first year. The statements of a number of Western leaders came during the Munich Security Conference, to talk about the type of weapons that Western leaders should provide to Ukraine. The agreement came as a whole to hold Russia accountable for “crimes committed” during the war that began on February 24, 2022.

 Observers liken the Munich Security Conference to the world’s “Davos Defense Forum”, where generals and strategic experts replace top businessmen and CEOs around the world.

 The Munich Security Conference this year 2023 came as a confirmation of the joint Chinese-Russian rejection of the concept of a unipolar world, in which the United States of America is the only superpower, and with the same logic came the Russian-Chinese endeavor to change the rules of the existing international system and affirm their rejection of the internationally dominant American unilateralism.  The United States called on China, during the Munich Security Conference, not to support Russia with weapons in its war against Ukraine.  This is the same as the Secretary-General of NATO, “Pence Stoltenberg”, that the alliance is closely monitoring what it sees as an increase in cooperation between China and Russia.  Speaking to a number of journalists upon his arrival to attend the Munich Security Conference, Stoltenberg said:

“We see that both China and Russia are strengthening cooperation between them, conducting joint exercises, and carrying out naval patrols and sorties together”

 China’s presence gives the Munich Security Conference an international character so that it does not appear to be just a Western meeting place for European leaders and military personnel. Also, in light of the great attraction between Washington and Beijing, from Taiwan to the controversy over the Chinese balloon, it is possible through this conference to show the transformations of the international system, and this security forum has also witnessed signs of China’s transition from the ranks of the silent power to the position of an influential and rising power internationally.  Here came Wang Pei’s assertion, in his capacity as the chief Chinese diplomat and the most prominent foreign policy advisor to the Chinese President, Comrade “Xi Jinping”, during his speech at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, February 19, 2023, that Beijing is ready to present a peace proposal on Ukraine, in a note.  A rare Chinese to point out that the conflict in Ukraine reaches the rank of war and not an invasion, compared to previous Chinese statements.  With Wang Pei, the foreign minister, asserting that: “This war cannot continue to rage”.

 Chinese Foreign Minister “Wang Yi” also spoke out against Russia’s intervention in Ukraine, calling on all parties to sit down together and strive to implement the “Minsk Agreement”.  With his emphasis during the Munich Security Conference on China’s opposition to the expansion of NATO towards the east.  Bearing in mind China’s adherence to the “Minsk Agreement”, which is a peace plan agreed upon with French-German mediation in 2015, to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists are fighting Ukrainian forces. The Minsk Agreement stipulates that the two separatist, pro-Russian regions are autonomous parts of Ukraine. However, Kiev has yet to introduce an autonomy law regarding those disputed regions.  Therefore, Wang Yi’s assertion came during the Munich Security Conference, which delivered his speech via video link, that: “The sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of every country must be protected and respected, and this is one of the basic standards of international relations”, with his emphasis that Ukraine is no exception.

   Despite those official Chinese statements issued at the Munich Security Conference, many European Union leaders attending and participating in the Munich Conference remain skeptical about Beijing’s intentions, even with Wang Yi’s call for European countries to change their approach to war. This is what was announced by the President of the European Commission “Ursula von der Leyen” in her speech, by saying:

“We need more evidence that China is not working with Russia, and we don’t see that right now”

 Here came the Chinese determination through the Chinese Foreign Minister “Wang Yi” at the Munich Security Conference on NATO’s expansion towards the east via Wang Yi’s remarks, confirming China’s official view, that:

“The Cold War ended long ago, and NATO was a product of the Cold War era, so from China’s point of view, eastward expansion does not guarantee lasting peace and security in Europe”

 In my opinion, the Chinese Foreign Minister’s statement did not surprise the political observers at the Munich Security Conference, as tensions between Russia and China have recently moved closer to each other, as a result of Western interference in their affairs. This was specifically evident in the joint declaration between the presidents of China and Russia, with both calling for an end to NATO’s expansion towards the east, during the visit of Russian President “Vladimir Putin” to Beijing and holding a lengthy discussion session with the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party and Chinese President “Xi Jinping”, prior to the start of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, where Putin also received support for the Ukraine crisis from his Chinese counterpart “Xi”.

 The Munich Security Conference did not achieve the desired results with the Russian Foreign Ministry announcing the boycott of the Russian delegation to the Munich Conference, even if it was invited, with the Russian side confirming that the Munich Security Forum has completely lost its objectivity.  The Russian side refused to fully abide by any decisions arising from the Munich Security Conference meetings, because of what the Russians considered flagrant violations of the principles of the United Nations Charter and the Helsinki Final Document of 1975, issued by the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe regarding non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries, which is  what  missed during the Munich Security Conference.

 Ukraine, along with a number of military leaders in Europe, called for the establishment of a special court to try senior Russian officials, but the form of this court still raises question marks and complex legal questions. During the Munich Security Conference, EU members also studied ways to carry out joint purchases of military equipment for Ukraine.  During the same conference, US military leaders announced a contract worth about one billion dollars to increase the production of military aid, which will be used in large quantities in Ukraine.  It was also announced that the next international conference for the reconstruction of Ukraine will be held next June in London.

 During the Munich Security Conference, Ukraine’s request to obtain combat aircraft was discussed, but the allied countries are still, at the present time, reticent on this request. In general, the allied countries of Ukraine agreed to provide financial and military assistance.  And unifying the front of the member states at the Munich Security Conference to impose severe economic sanctions on Russia.

  In my personal opinion, the Munich Security Conference failed to achieve any Western mobilization to stop the duration of the Russian-Ukrainian war. Until this moment, there are no signs on the horizon to calm the conflict, during which the Russian forces took control of about a fifth of the Ukrainian lands, and the battles caused the death of tens of thousands of the victims on both sides, while the North Atlantic Treaty Organization “NATO” warns of a new large-scale Russian attack in the near future. All indications also indicate that Russia has succeeded in adapting to the sanctions imposed on it as a result of the attack on Ukraine in the face of the United States of America and the West.

 The Russian challenge also came in response to the Munich Security Conference meetings, through the Russian army announcing its control of several locations in the Kharkiv region in northeastern Ukraine, where Russian forces have been launching several strikes for some time, in parallel with a number of other Russian attacks in the regions (Bakhmut and Vogledar).

 In this context, the allies and those gathered at the Munich Security Conference expect a prolongation of the war, which is what all the European leaders meeting during the conference warned against.  This proves the failure of the Munich Security Conference to achieve any Western success or mobilization to stop the war or to impose binding decisions on the Russian side. Here we understand the extent of American and Western concern about the intentions of China and Russia towards them, with renewed discussions at the Munich Security Conference on a number of questions of interest to the Chinese and Russian sides to find out the answer to them, such as:

To what extent should Europe strengthen its military capabilities?  And to what extent should it depend on the United States of America for its security?  How much should governments spend on defence?

   Finally, the focus of the joint Chinese and Russian interest during the Munich Security Conference came to know the position of the European and military leaders gathered during the conference discussions, to understand their vision and their specific position on the most prominent long-term global repercussions of the war on Ukraine on fundamental global issues starting from energy supplies to food prices.

  Here it seems that the current strategy of the leaders and military participants in the Munich Security Conference has come to accept the Russian-Ukrainian war without end in the foreseeable future, especially with Moscow boycotting the conference and not reaching any binding agreement with President “Putin”. In addition to the most important thing, which is Russia’s success in circumventing the US and Western sanctions imposed on it, and its success in evading them by searching for other alternatives.

Dr.Nadia Helmy
Dr.Nadia Helmy
Associate Professor of Political Science, Faculty of Politics and Economics / Beni Suef University- Egypt. An Expert in Chinese Politics, Sino-Israeli relationships, and Asian affairs- Visiting Senior Researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES)/ Lund University, Sweden- Director of the South and East Asia Studies Unit