By Beijing’s reckoning, the U.S.-led global order is in turmoil, and a Washington in decline has no answers to the world’s mounting problems. Fortunately for the future of humanity, however, the Chinese leader Xi Jinping does. He would like to replace Washington’s “rules-based” world order with a framework of his own—one whose most sacred principle is national sovereignty, or the right of states to govern themselves, free from outside interference.
In the world Xi envisions, nations will no longer have to endure Washington’s preaching about democracy and human rights. All governments, no matter how repressive, will be equals, with their sovereignty assured. Xi enshrined the protection of sovereignty as the very first plank of his Global Security Initiative, an ideological blueprint for a new global system that he introduced, probably not coincidentally, several weeks after the start of the Ukraine conflict in 2022.
That war has posed a bit of a problem for China’s professed position, however. Russia, China’s strategic partner, trammeled an international border to invade a neighboring country in what could hardly be a clearer violation of that country’s sovereignty. But rather than sympathize with Ukraine’s desperate struggle to preserve its independent existence, Xi cemented his partnership with the Russian invaders intent on annihilating it.
“You can’t be helping Russia conduct this war and say you believe in Ukraine’s territorial integrity,” John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told me. “Obviously, you can’t square that circle.”
Yet Xi has tried to do so. His contradictory stance on the war has forced his diplomats to tap dance, seeking to preserve Beijing’s pretense of principled neutrality even to the point of staging a purported peace mission. Meanwhile, the war has raised serious questions about the place of sovereignty in Xi’s vision for a new world order, and, relatedly, about his ability to achieve his grandiose plans. [Continue reading…]