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China's plan for peace in Ukraine thin on solutions

Alena Zhabina
February 24, 2023

Since China's top diplomat Wang Yi announced Beijing's plan for a political settlement in Ukraine, speculation has been rife about its role in resolving the crisis. The plan has now been released.

Wang Wenbin
China's proposal talks of sovereignty but not solutionsImage: Ichiro Ohara/AP Photo/picture alliance

During last week's Munich Security Conference (MSC), senior Chinese diplomat Wang Yi announced Beijing's peace plan to resolve the war in Ukraine through political means.

In a 12-point statement released on Friday morning, the peace initiative includes criticism of unilateral sanctions, calls to resume peace talks and reduce strategic risks associated with nuclear weapons.

For a long time, China has been reluctant to take an active role in the conflict, presenting itself as a neutral power and ignoring calls to put pressure on Russia. It is understandable since China is one of the main beneficiaries of the sanctions against Russia. Due to Russia's international isolation, China has gained strong leverage over Russian energy supplies and their prices. In 2022, Chinese exports to Russia increased by 12.8% while imports, including natural resources, grew 43.4%. 

Nevertheless, the negative impacts of the war are slowly outweighing the short-term gains. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken alleged that China was considering providing Russia with lethal arms. The alleged support to Russia has resulted in tighter export controls and restrictions on investments from the West.

Suggestions that what is occurring in Ukraine could be repeated by China with regards to Taiwan is an enduring concern in the West, affecting relations with the US and EU, Beijing's largest trading partners

"Russia has done Beijing very few favors by waking the world up to this threat before Beijing was ever ready to undertake a potential invasion of Taiwan," Blake Herzinger, a nonresident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute focusing on Indo-Pacific defense policy, told DW.

MSC ends with calls for fast Ukraine support

China's remedy for the war in Ukraine 

Until the release of China's 12-point proposal on the first anniversary of the start of the war, the details of the plan have been kept secret, even from Ukraine and Russia. Wang Yi introduced the key points to the Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba in Munich. However, neither Kuleba nor the president of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy saw the text of the proposal. 

After the conference in Munich, Wang Yi visited Russia and met several top-ranking officials, as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin. Although Wang Yi was in Russia only two days before the release, Moscow reported that there were no talks about the so-called "Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis."

In the peace initiative, the main focus was on sovereignty and territorial integrity. However, China does not specify how this issue, fundamental to both Russia and Ukraine, should be addressed. 

"China pays lip service to territorial integrity, but hasn't called on Russia to stop its illegal war of conquest and withdraw its troops," Thorsten Benner, director of the Global Public Policy Institute, told DW. 

Contrary to many expectations, the plan also did not call to halt arms supplies to Ukraine

The paper highlights dialogue and negotiations as the only viable solution to the Ukraine crisis. Currently, the talks between Russia and Ukraine have been reduced to the exchange of prisoners and rare informal contacts. 

"To be successful, peace mediation needs the willingness of conflicting parties," Artyom Lukin, associate professor at Far Eastern Federal University, told DW.

"However, there are now few signs that Moscow and Kyiv are interested in reaching a compromise. Moscow is still determined to get hold of the entire Donetsk and Lugansk regions while retaining control over the areas of the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson regions that were taken by Russian forces in 2022. Kyiv sounds determined to push Russia out of the Donbas, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson and perhaps going after Crimea next. It's hard to see how Russia's and Ukraine's positions could be bridged at the moment," Lukin said.

Are the sanctions working?

Questions over China's intentions

China's role as a mediator in the conflict seems dubious since it appears not an impartial actor. Over the past year, Beijing has intensified political, military, and economic ties with Moscow. In the 12-point proposal, China once again opposes "unilateral sanctions unauthorized by the UN Security Council."

Zelenskyy has repeatedly sought to make contact with Chinese President Xi Jinping since Russia invaded Ukraine in February last year. At the same time, Xi has not met or called the Ukrainian president even once despite regular contact with Putin.  

"It is foolish to believe that a party that is on the side of one player, namely China on the side of Russia, could play the role of the mediator. The same way Europe couldn't be a mediator because it is firmly on the side of Kyiv," Benner from the Global Public Policy Institute explained.

Growing concerns that China may send weapons to Russia

PR campaign to emphasize China's peace stance 

China's proposal for peace, to a large extent, looks like a declaration of principles rather than a practical solution. 

"What struck me, in particular, is the fact that there are no proposals to incentivize or leverage Moscow to change its behavior," Ian Chong, a political scientist at the National University of Singapore, told DW. "There is no pressure and there is no offer that might benefit Russia should it comply. Just on the language of the statement, it's unclear why there will be incentive for Russia and unclear why there is an incentive for Ukraine if there is no rationale for Russia to stop the invasion in the first instance."

China exporting military gear to Russia despite sanctions

"I think China is doing it solely for public relations reasons," Benner continued. "This so-called peace plan and talking about itself as a mediator is mostly a rhetorical tool that Beijing uses, in the effort to mend fences with Europe and improve relations with the rest of the world, as well as to support the message that the United States is the culprit for the war and that China is actually a force for peace."

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Edited by: John Silk