Can’t abstain from hunger: Moscow and Beijing spread food insecurity and debt subservience

Yomiuri Shimbun file photo
U.S. Ambassador to Japan Rahm Emanuel

Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there has been a good deal of debate about a new “Cold War.” Russia’s actions are a cautionary tale for the 35 countries that abstained at the March 3 U.N. General Assembly vote to condemn President Vladimir Putin’s illegal war. The ability to abstain is not sustainable as a strategic position, both in the immediate and the long term. You may not want to take a position on Russia, or you may feel this doesn’t affect you, but the war is affecting the price of food and energy for your countrymen. They cannot abstain from inflation, and the war is on their front doorstep.

For the rest of us who voted “Yes” on the U.N. resolution, the future will be won not just in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine, but by persuading these 35 countries’ citizens where their long-term interests truly lie.

As if the grotesque images of Russian atrocities in Bucha and Mariupol weren’t enough, Putin’s war now has other victims: the world’s poor, malnourished, and all those who rely on food imports. More than two dozen nations rely on Ukraine and Russia for at least 50% of their wheat supply. Putin is trying to destroy Ukraine’s food production capacity for the long-term, through the stealing of grain and agricultural machinery and the deliberate planting of landmines on farmlands. Wheat, grain, sunflower oil, fertilizer — all these staples have been ravaged. In short, Russia is not abstaining from affecting the ability of countries around the world to meet their citizens’ most basic needs.

China’s abstention at the U.N. vote does not mean it is sitting idly on the sidelines; rather it is aiding and abetting Russia as a major exporter of insecurity itself. Beijing has been hoarding grain (over half the world’s stocks) over the past several months, further inflating global prices.

Beyond exacerbating the food security problem, far too many countries find themselves saddled with debt from unsustainable Chinese infrastructure projects. China’s failure to provide debt relief is fomenting instability in Belt and Road partners the world over. Thirty countries are now identified as in “fragile and conflict-affected situations.” The record of the Belt and Road is well-documented: breeding economic insecurity and financial vulnerability.

Contrast Russia’s and China’s actions with those of responsible members of the international community. The United States remains the largest humanitarian donor in response to Russia’s war in Ukraine; President Joe Biden announced in March that the United States is prepared to provide more than $1 billion in new funding toward humanitarian assistance for those affected, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture and USAID recently announced $670 million in food assistance to countries in need. America is not perfect, but we do put our money where our mouth is when it comes to providing COVID-19 vaccines, life-saving medicines, or food aid to the rest of the world. A world leader in each area.

To the 35 countries that abstained in the U.N. vote: you may not want to make a choice between “sides.” But denial is not a long-term strategy. Insecurity is China and Russia’s greatest export. In the end, food insecurity and debt servility lead to political instability.

While the United States, Japan, our EU allies, and others have much more to do to earn the trust and confidence of the 35 “abstaining” countries, Russia and China have shown their true colors. The question for the 35 countries is: do you want your countrymen to have a world that exacerbates your vulnerabilities, or one that helps build your country up?

Emanuel is U.S. ambassador to Japan.