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China is not the answer to Nato President Xi has learnt from our hollow humanitarianism

(SERGEI GUNEYEV/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

(SERGEI GUNEYEV/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)


May 8, 2024   6 mins

The timing of President Xi Jinping’s visit to Belgrade yesterday was far from accidental: exactly 25 years before, Nato forces bombed the city’s Chinese embassy during Operation Allied Force, the two-and-half month campaign against what was then the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

Given the Nato campaign was justified by the need to halt what was described as a Serbian “genocide” against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo, the circumstances surrounding the bombing, which left three Chinese journalists dead, remain murky. While Nato insists the attack was accidental, Beijing’s claim that it was deliberate was bolstered by a subsequent investigation in The Observer, which suggested the building was targeted by the US in order to foil Chinese intelligence-gathering efforts on American tactics and weaponry — allegations denied by Washington.

Yet if the circumstances of the bombing remain contested, the international consequences of Nato’s campaign against Serbia are clearer, as indeed is the difference between the China of 1999 and the China of today. There is, in short, no doubting the symbolism of Xi’s visit to the Balkan back-yard of the European Union.

A quarter of a century ago, although China was already the world’s second largest economy, measured by purchasing power parity (PPP) terms, its options for retaliation against the US bombing of its sovereign territory were limited. Today, not only is China the largest economy in the world — it is orders of magnitude more powerful in military terms, with significantly more means of exerting strategic, diplomatic and military pressure on the US and its allies, ranging across Africa to the South China Sea to the Taiwan Straits. On the site of the embassy now stands a new complex, incorporating a Confucius Institute as well as offices, workshops and a hotel. It is a symbol of China’s wealth and soft power as much as its world position. Perhaps even more significant than enhanced Chinese power, however, are the changes in the wider international order.

The Nato bombing over Kosovo was both the moment of peak liberal international hubris, and the moment the so-called “rules-based order” began to crumble. On the one hand, the campaign was justified by the need to defend the human rights of Kosovo’s majority Albanian population from a counter-insurgency campaign against Albanian separatists waged by Belgrade. On the other, the Nato bombing was also in explicit violation of the UN Charter, whose articles protected member-states’ sovereign rights to be free from external interference.

Unlike previous humanitarian military operations during the Nineties, in this case the circle was not squared by the UN granting authorisation for the Nato military intervention. The UN could not offer its imprimatur because of the threatened use of veto by Russia and China, permanent members on the UN Security Council. Both countries were suspicious of Western states’ growing proclivity to use force in defence of human rights, and both had good reason to want to discourage their own restive peripheral minorities from seeking outside military support.

Despite the lack of UN legitimacy, the pressure of the Nato bombing campaign, as well as behind-the-scenes Russian diplomacy, eventually forced the Serbian state to withdraw its forces from Kosovo, allowing Nato to occupy the province and establish an international protectorate in the territory, where NATO has remained ever since. Kosovo would eventually unilaterally declare independence from Serbia in 2008 — a claim to independence still denied by Belgrade. Serbia still enjoys the support of Russia and China in its efforts to stymie international recognition of Kosovo’s independence, while independent Kosovo now enjoys the recognition of most of the world’s states.

The 1999 bombing campaign was, therefore, both a moment of Western triumph and Western overreach. Defended at the time in the most grandiloquent terms as a cosmic battle between good and evil, the Nato campaign showed the West at the peak of its power, able to intervene militarily wherever it wanted on humanitarian grounds, unrestrained by international law or convention and without UN support. But it also amounted to the sabotage by Western states of the very same rules-based order enshrined in the UN, whose liberal maxims — including non-intervention in internal matters — were extended as the guarantee for non-Western states to accept Western leadership. Although the civilian casualties cited by Western states to justify the bombing quickly began to unravel, the precedent had already been established.

After Kosovo, humanitarianism became fused with every Western war-effort — whether the need to defend Afghan women from the Taliban, Iraqis from Saddam Hussein’s tyranny, or Libyans from Colonel Gaddafi’s vengeance. From an international order based around sovereign states and citizens’ rights, Nato ushered in a cosmopolitan order based around global states on the one hand, whose political and legal claims have limitless jurisdiction, and a morass of deracinated humanity on the other, which no longer enjoyed any national protections except for the prospect of a humanitarian intervention in their favour.

Today, this humanitarianism is still regarded as the basis of the West’s global right — as seen in America’s efforts to build a “floating pier” to distribute humanitarian aid to besieged Palestinians in Gaza; in effect, the US is shoring up its legitimacy in the Gaza war by ministering to the Palestinians’ humanitarian needs in the midst of an Israeli bombardment by US-supplied arms. What has changed is more on the other side of the geopolitical divide. Across the Nineties and early 2000s, Russia championed the rights of sovereign states against the humanitarianism of Western states. Since the Russo-Georgian War of 2008, however, Vladimir Putin has deployed the Nato model to justify Russian expansionism. It begins with military intervention to defend embattled separatist minorities (Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Donbass) against genocidal central government forces (Tbilisi, Kyiv), followed by the establishment of protectorates (the former People’s Republics of Luhansk and Donetsk). The Kremlin twist to the Nato model is then to annex the protectorates.

Between Nato and Vladimir Putin, there is now no longer anyone in the international order today willing to defend the principle of non-intervention and state sovereignty. Two obvious European successors to claim the mantle of defending national sovereignty — Brexit Britain and embattled Ukraine — have both rejected pursuing a politics of national independence in favour of plumping for Nato, the single transnational organisation that has done the most to destroy not only individual states (Libya, Yugoslavia), but state sovereignty as such, which Nato expressly jettisoned in favour of fighting for the humanitarian responsibility to protect.

“There is now no longer anyone in the international order today willing to defend the principle of non-intervention and state sovereignty.”

And what of Serbia? For all the diplomatic support it has received from Russia in its efforts to stymie Kosovo’s independence, Serbia’s international position is much closer to Ukraine’s than that of any other country in Europe. As with the Nato intervention, occupation and eventual dismemberment of Serbian territory with Kosovar independence, so Russia has done to Ukraine in Crimea and Donbass. If any two European countries have a joint interest in maintaining their sovereignty and territorial integrity from the predations of more powerful neighbours, it is Ukraine and Serbia.

This is partly why Serbian president Aleksandar Vučić has exported Serbian weapons to Ukraine, while also managing to avoid joining the EU sanctions on Russia that have blown back against Western economies. Here, Vučić is trying to perpetuate the diplomatic tradition of neutralism and non-alignment that Serbia inherited from the former Yugoslavia, which sought to balance between East and West during the Cold War.

Yet while he is no less autocratic than the Yugoslav Communist leader Marshal Tito, Vučić nonetheless lacks Tito’s toughness. Not only did Tito allegedly threaten to assassinate Stalin when Yugoslavia broke with the USSR in 1948, but he also went on to establish an independent geopolitical bloc — the Non-Aligned Movement — alongside Indian independence leader Jawaharlal Nehru, Indonesian independence leader Sukarno and Egyptian nationalist Gamal Abdel Nasser. By contrast, although Vučić assiduously courts outside patronage, he does not have the vision to establish an independent bloc, even though the circumstances for doing so are so much more propitious than in Tito’s day — one need only look at economic growth figures for India and Indonesia to see that. Nonetheless, even Vučić’s limited and unimaginative efforts to balance between Brussels, Moscow, Beijing and Washington D.C. indicate that there are more political options available for those canny enough to pursue them.

After all, long before Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine, the international rules-based order was buried beneath the rubble of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999. While Xi’s China may offer countries around the world more space to exercise political independence from the West, its transactional vision of international relations is no substitute for Western leadership, and its support for Russian revanchism indicates it does not have the vision to lead an international order of sovereign nation-states. Despite many vesting their hopes for liberation from American hegemony in a multipolarity, the truth is Xi’s Chinese nationalism offers no meaningful counter-pole to Nato. Rather, it demonstrates that until there is a state willing to pursue a robust sovereigntist politics of national independence, the international order will continue to be plagued by grandiloquent globalism — with all the strategic overreach and geopolitical rivalry that comes with it.


Philip Cunliffe is Associate Professor of International Relations at the Institute of Risk and Disaster Reduction, University College London. He is author or editor of eight books, as well as a co-author of Taking Control: Sovereignty and Democracy After Brexit (2023). He is one of the hosts of the Bungacast podcast.

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Will K
Will K
19 days ago

Nato was conceived expecting the US would protect Europe’s interests against Russia. Now, it’s expected that Europe protects itself, and also protect America’s interests, and perhaps the US will sacrifice itself to help Europe. Next, China comes in. Clearly the concept and reason for NATO is outdated.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
19 days ago
Reply to  Will K

NATO became outdated with the collapse of the Soviet Union and should have been dissolved then.

Martin M
Martin M
19 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

While Russia exists in its present form, there is a need for NATO.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
19 days ago
Reply to  Martin M

NATO lied about not expanding…but Russia is the problem…lol

Martin M
Martin M
19 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

The biggest recent driver of NATO expansion is Vladimir Putin. He personally ensured that Sweden and Finland joined. Russia is the problem because it insists on invading its neighbors.

Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
19 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

Which countries were forced to join NATO against their will? “Lol”?

Jim McDonnell
Jim McDonnell
19 days ago
Reply to  Michael Cazaly

Strictly speaking, NATO did not expand. Nations eagerly joined it for protection against precisely what’s happening to Ukraine now.

Sayantani G
Sayantani G
19 days ago

Factual correction- 108 nations till date donot recognise Kosovo. This includes Spain, Greece and India as well as several other nations of the global South.
The Kosovo intervention set an unfortunate precedent- effects of which are felt till today.
As someone who has lived and worked there, I find the author’s depictions rather simplistic and devoid of seeing the issue in a broader historical context starting in 1389.
I am sure this post will be ” held back” by UH so won’t say more( please prove me wrong UH!)

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
16 days ago
Reply to  Sayantani G

Siting a battle in 1389 lost by the Serbs would seem to justify (as always used to be the case – Prussia and Silesia, many others) the area becoming part of Turkey rather than any other outcome!

Serbian nationalism was a much later phenomenon – originally of a tiny elite of people who largely created the usual romanticised national myths, such as the 1389 battle. The genie is well.out of the bottle, but narrow exclusive nationalism has – unwittingly but probably inexorably – been a historical catastrophe for the Balkans and other areas of Eastern Europe.

Sayantani G
Sayantani G
16 days ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Not quite. That maybe your perspective but is not that of a considerable section of the Christian people’s of the Balkans.
Islamic rule is something which is part of the historical memory of many non Islamic people’s ruled by the former.
Not necessarily is it seen as being as uplifting as those of you who have not undergone it seem to think.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
19 days ago

Given the Nato campaign was justified by the need to halt what was described as a Serbian “genocide” against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo,
Maybe we stop accepting things that we approve as “given” and also stop with the overuse of ‘genocide.’

R S Foster
R S Foster
19 days ago

The brutal reality for the West is that we are badly outnumbered by Regimes and Peoples who hate us, want to kill us, and will do so if they can…and not for anything we have done, just for who we are…which offends against their notion of how the world should be, how it should be run and who by.

Which means our most rational choice is to abandon the UN, cut off it’s funding, and throw it out of our countries…and concentrate all our efforts on preparing to defend ourselves…and reshoring all the means and resources necessary to do it successfully.

Which clearly includes alliances like the Five Eyes, Aukus, NATO and others if these can be held together and strengthened.

By 2100, the world might be run by our descendants or those of Czar Putin of all the Russians, the Celestial Emperor Xi, or some new Caliph and Commander of the Faithful…

…and I personally prefer the first over the other three options..!

Martin M
Martin M
18 days ago
Reply to  R S Foster

Good point. What has the UN really done in furtherance of World Peace since the Korean War?

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
19 days ago

Kosovo only ‘worked’ because it exploited a pre-existing religious division. The entire area of the former Yugoslavia has a history defined by being a battleground between Catholic Christian powers, most notably the Austrian Habsburg Empire, Orthodox Christian powers, most notably Russia, and the Islamic Ottoman Empire. Kosovo was a largely Muslim region still under the control of Serbia, the largest and most powerful of the states that comprised the former Yugoslavia and a traditional ally of Russia. Kosovo didn’t want to be under Serbian control anymore so the only thing the west had to ‘do’ was evict the Serbian Army which was essentially acting as an occupation force. Given the facts on the ground, the action was reasonable and strategically sound. The goal was achievable because of the circumstances surrounding the situation. Most NATO members understood that at the time and it was a fairly successful operation, though as in any conflict, mistakes were made, such as the bombing of the Chinese embassy. It was not a landmark betrayal of the ‘global order’, except maybe in the minds of idealistic fools.
That this author thinks the UN’s opinion on anything should make two figs worth of difference just shows the general naivete of journalists in general. The UN was never anything but a PR tool and a discussion forum, a way for the post WWII powers to pander to their war weary populations and make it seem like they were trying to all get along and prevent another war. They didn’t want a war, but neither did they think the UN would present any obstacle to wars. Wars rarely happen because people want them. They happen because of divergent interests and differences that can’t be reconciled to the point one side or the other feels compelled to escalate the matter to violence. When one side of a conflict decides it’s worth killing, there’s no discussion that can resolve the matter. The UN was, is, and always will be, an irrelevant side show, a glorified PR operation for the world’s governments to try to play to the global press, who conveniently provide a nigh endless supply of idealistic fools who will regurgitate nonsense on command.
The international rules based order certainly wasn’t buried in the rubble of the Chinese embassy in 1999. If anything, that point represents the zenith of the rules based order. The international rules based order was never based on the UN, or NATO, or the G7, or any of that. Further, there never were any rules. The international rules based order was the unchallenged military supremacy of the US everywhere in the world and the rules are whatever Washington says they are. Consider the events of the past two decades up to the present. The US military has been humbled in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Chinese have built up a force that can credibly threaten US carrier groups, and most recently, the US Navy has proven incapable of defending freedom of the seas from a few hundred people living in tents in the desert. If you’re looking for the reason globalism and the ‘rules based order’ is failing, look no further.
The author does have one thing right. China is not the answer to NATO. They’re an alternative hegemon but they’re not likely to be any less self-serving or demanding than the USA is. They’ll just make different demands that might or might not be preferable to the old. They might not intervene militarily as quickly but they won’t bat an eye at telling foreign media outlets what they can and can’t say about China or threatening to cut trade to force political concessions.
There really is no escaping it. Globalism was based on somebody having unchallenged, unequivocal, and broadly understood complete military supremacy to enforce whatever ‘rules’ existed, whoever made them up. Without that, globalism will break down, and we will again be living in a multipolar world where all international relations, including financial investments, trade, and immigration will have to be weighed in terms of geopolitical interest and national security. The old world is not coming back. The new world will belong to those who best prepare for it.

Sayantani G
Sayantani G
18 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

I think you need to keep in mind that Kosovo is the seat of the holiest shrines and monasteries of the Serbian Orthodox Church – Gracanica, Pec, Dvechane. Apart from countless other churches and monasteries.The NATO intervention was largely unnecessary especially as the Kosovar Albanians were not necessarily the forces of ” righteousness” as they were made out to be.
In any case it was the Ottoman Turks who in the 18th century encouraged the mass migration of Albanians into Kosovo to alter the population mix.
The loose usage of the word ” genocide” is also unfortunate given that the earlier wars in Croatia saw violence on all sides- including similar issues in Krajina. The KLA was a militant and violent organisation. Some of its worst excesses against Serbs and their places of worship were as bad as the Srebenica massacres.
This excuse for ” good terrorists” versus ” bad terrorists” which the West had used was not a very helpful paradigm in the long run. The Mujahideen of the 1980s morphed finally into Al Qaeda. Similarly stoking Albanian Muslim revanchism in Kosovo in 1999 has not been a good strategy and leads to the issue of double standards, keenly felt in many parts of the non
West.
The intervention by Clinton was perhaps further unfortunate given the long shadows of World War Two in the region. Recall that the German armies then found enthusiastic support from the Albanians( and the Croat Ustasha). The fact that the German Green Party played a major role in bringing about the Kosovo intervention adds this a further layer of complication.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
18 days ago
Reply to  Sayantani G

Well I tend to avoid moralizing in geopolitics. I also don’t expect leaders to be clairvoyant enough to know all the possible implications of an action twenty years down the road. I wasn’t making a statement of moral support for the Kosovo mission. I was simply stating the realistic facts as I see them. Kosova was a success for NATO insofar as it was accomplished successfully at a reasonable cost with minimal losses. It was certainly successful when compared to boondoggles like Vietnam and Iraq.That’s all. Whether it was good or bad, justified or not, is endlessly arguable. In geopolitical conflicts there are always two sides and rarely can either be described as “the good guys”.

Sayantani G
Sayantani G
18 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

It wasn’t very inexpensive either. Full Kfor troops included NATO plus UN peacekeeping troops. Plus OSCE. Plus a very ambitious UN Mission with deployment of scores of international civil servants and local bureaucrats ( invariably a subsidy to Albanians in employment terms).
The fiscal costs were staggering( you can check the UN and OSCE websites for the exact amounts).
All for what? Distracting attention from domestic politics? Or ego satisfaction at the cost of thousands of destroyed lives? Read the book ” Crucified Kosovo” to see the thousands of Christian shrines and churches destroyed.
I agree with you that situations appear clearly in hindsight, but this intervention by the US under Clinton was quite unnecessary.

Eric Hermann
Eric Hermann
18 days ago

China is NOT the largest economy in the world. It’s still significantly behind the US in GDP and most traditional metrics of economic size.

Will K
Will K
17 days ago

The West is in chaos, primarily due to Mr Biden’s incompetent foreign policies. China would probably be content to stand back, continue normal trade with Russia, the East, and the USA, and wait for Mr Biden to leave office.