On the first anniversary of the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine, 24 February, the Chinese foreign ministry released a 12-point position paper on resolving the Ukraine crisis.
Is the Chinese peace plan helpful? Yes, but only in the most general sense of raising the profile of the need for peace talks (Point 4) – and a ceasefire (Point 3). There is nothing in particular in the plan that could lead to a breakthrough. The most interesting thing about the plan is that it has been carefully constructed to improve China’s international standing while not deserting China’s main ally in the world.
Would the Chinese government like an end to the Ukraine War and a return to the military situation before the full-scale Russian invasion on 24 February 2022? Definitely.
Over recent years, China has increasingly stressed the importance of national sovereignty. In this case, the principle of territorial sovereignty has been violated by Russia. Maintaining an alliance with Russia is therefore embarrassing.
From another angle, as Natasha Kuhrt, a Kings College London expert in Russian foreign policy, said in a Chatham House discussion last May: China ‘has always presented itself, to some extent, as aligning with the... “Davids” of this world against the “Goliaths”.’ In the Ukraine War, China’s refusal to condemn a murderous Goliath, and its refusal to come to the aid of a desperate David, are hard to square with that image.
Apart from these political headaches, the Russian invasion has also caused economic difficulties for China. For example, in 2021, a fifth of China’s grain imports came from Ukraine, including 29 percent of all China’s corn imports. Ukraine-related sanctions against Russia have complicated things for many Chinese businesses, including banks.
On the other hand, the crisis – and Western sanctions against Russia – have provided some opportunities, from a Chinese perspective. Trade between the two countries increased overall in 2022, with higher Chinese imports from Russia (including discounted Russian gas and oil) and higher exports to Russia (including taking over the smartphone market and overtaking European and US brands in new passenger car sales).
Putting it all together, things would have been less bumpy and awkward for China if Russia had not launched its full-scale aggression against Ukraine on 24 February 2022.
The crucial partnership with Russia
That is because one of the fundamental cornerstones of Chinese foreign policy is its strategic partnership with Russia. Two US analysts, Kevin Modlin and Zenel Garcia, recently described the semi-alliance in this way: ‘it is a relationship that is narrowly defined by a mutual interest in accelerating the emergence of a multipolar order that places limits on U.S. hegemony’.
This is a misleading way of putting things. Yes, China does want to take a leading role in world affairs, to be seen as a political as well as an economic superpower, and you could call that new international situation ‘a multipolar order’.
However, the real reason why partnership with Russia is so important is that, from China’s point of view, the United States is already waging an economic and diplomatic campaign to undermine China’s growth and development and to keep China technologically, economically, politically and militarily inferior. Part of that US campaign is a ring of US military bases encircling China. Another part is made up of stronger military/security alliances such as 'the Quad' (Australia/India/Japan/US, revived in 2017) and AUKUS (Australia/UK/US, launched in 2021).
As the US steadily tightens its noose around China’s neck, China cannot afford to lose its one major ally in the world. Yun Sun, director of the China programme at the Stimson Centre thinktank in Washington, DC, puts it this way: ‘You will never see a scenario where China abandons Russia because, in China’s dictionary, if Russia stands to fall, China is next.’
On the other hand, Modlin and Garcia, the two US analysts quoted above, were right to point out that the China-Russia relationship is not a full alliance like NATO. It is, as they say, a ‘limited strategic partnership’ where neither side ‘is willing to incur costs for the other’.
That’s why China has tried to walk a diplomatic (and trading) tightrope in its response to the Ukraine War, not condemning Russia but also not arming Russia. Another Stimson Centre analyst has described China’s approach as ‘pro-Russia neutrality’.
Two other Western analysts, Andrew Scobell from the US and Niklas Swanström from Sweden, have suggested that we should pay more attention to China’s increased trade with Russia, which has helped Russia to carry on its war – even if this trade has not broken any international sanctions related to Ukraine. Writing in December 2022, Scobell and Swanström also emphasised the fact that China had not made any significant moves to mediate to bring the war to an end.
From this perspective, Scobell and Swanström wrote, China has been Russia’s ‘silent partner’ in the Ukraine War: ‘by refusing to publicly take sides and declining to play an active peacemaking role in the United Nations or other venues, [China] has shown itself to be Moscow’s “silent partner” – a silent partner that intends to slow down the conflict or even halt it on terms that are favorable to Russia. While almost certainly desiring an end to the conflict, Beijing would much prefer an outcome that preserves as much as possible of Moscow’s geopolitical influence and great power status.’
Constructing the peace plan
While being in some ways a ‘silent partner’ in Russia’s war, the Chinese government has also been trying to hold fast to another of its key foreign policy goals: ‘maintaining a non-hostile external environment in order to focus on domestic priorities’. That includes trying to detach European states from the US, to lessen the chances of the European Union going along with aggressive US actions and sanctions against China. It also includes reinforcing China’s leading position within the Global South.
How does all of this play out in the construction of China’s new peace plan for Ukraine?
As far as I can tell, the Chinese position paper is not really intended to create a breakthrough, except by increasing the chances of peace talks (of some kind) happening. That would be a major achievement, no doubt, and a great service to the people of Ukraine and to the people of the world.
The peace plan is mainly designed to be inoffensive. It is a jigsaw made up of words and phrases chosen to appeal to some very different groups: to countries of the Global South; to the European Union; to Ukraine and the US; and, most importantly for China, to Russia. Sometimes, the words or phrases are designed to appeal to different groups at the same time. Sometimes there is a calculated ambiguity, where important statements can be read in completely different ways.
Offerings for the Global South
So, for example, the opening paragraph (Point 1), talks of ‘Respecting the sovereignty of all countries’ and observing international law and the United Nations Charter. This appeals to everyone... except Russia, you would think.
The Russian government, on the other hand, sees its actions as within international law and the UN Charter, and wants everyone else to respect its ‘sovereignty’ over four annexed Ukrainian provinces, so maybe this section is not actually offensive to Russia.
The second half of Point 1, however, is squarely aimed at the countries of the Global South, emphasising the rejection of ‘double standards’ in relation to national sovereignty: ‘All countries, big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor, are equal members of the international community.... Equal and uniform application of international law should be promoted, while double standards must be rejected.’
In the Global South, these sentences will make people think about the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and a host of other similar crimes, including the annexation of Syrian territory, multiple invasions of Lebanon, and the violation of Palestinian statehood, all by the state of Israel – with US backing and funding.
Point 9, on grain exports, also addresses a Global South concern: ‘The cooperation initiative on global food security proposed by China provides a feasible solution to the global food crisis,’ claims the peace plan. (The guaranteeing of Ukrainian and Russian grain exports also plays to Ukrainian and Russian interests.)
A similar Global South concern is raised in Point 11 of the peace plan, in terms of minimising the impact of the Ukraine War on global ‘industrial and supply chains’: ‘Joint efforts are needed to mitigate the spillovers of the crisis and prevent it from disrupting international cooperation in energy, finance, food trade and transportation and undermining the global economic recovery.’ There is an anti-US tone to this sentence in Point 11: ‘All parties should earnestly maintain the existing world economic system and oppose using the world economy as a tool or weapon for political purposes.’
Point 10, halting ‘unilateral sanctions’, also has an anti-US tone, and is relevant to many developing countries who have been hit by harsh US sanctions: ‘Relevant countries should stop abusing unilateral sanctions and “long-arm jurisdiction” against other countries, so as to do their share in deescalating the Ukraine crisis and create conditions for developing countries to grow their economies and better the lives of their people.’
It’s obviously helpful to Russia to call for an end to sanctions by individual countries, that aren’t UN sanctions.
The ‘long-arm jurisdiction’ aspect of this is also called ‘extraterritoriality’, where the US government says that not only is it a crime for a business on US soil to export a certain type of good to a specific country, it is also a crime punishable by US law for a firm in, say, the Netherlands to export that kind of item to the target country.
With extraterritoriality, the US government gives itself the right to punish that Dutch company for doing something that is perfectly legal in the Netherlands. The company might be banned from exporting to the US, or from financial transactions involving US banks or other financial institutions, for example.
So there are lots of aspects of the peace plan that should appeal to different Global South constituencies, as China stands up for those who, while not being involved in the war directly, are suffering considerably from the wider effects of the war.
For the Europeans
What aspects of the Chinese plan are aimed at European countries?
Point 7, ‘Keeping nuclear power plants safe’ is another multi-directional paragraph. Saying ‘China opposes armed attacks against nuclear power plants or other peaceful nuclear facilities’ should appeal to European countries, to the Ukrainian government and to the US. However, it also appeals to Russia, which holds the Zaporizhzhya nuclear power plant, and which accuses Ukraine of carrying out armed attacks nearby.
There are a number of general ‘Good Thing’ calls in the peace plan that should appeal to the Europeans: Point 3 (ceasing hostilities); Point 4 (resuming peace talks); Point 5 (resolving the humanitarian crisis); Point 6 (protecting civilians and prisoners of war); Point 8 (opposing the threat or use of nuclear weapons); and Point 12 (promoting post-conflict reconstruction).
Of course, opposing the threat or use of nuclear weapons (Point 8) has an anti-Russian tone to it, as Russia is the only country so far to make nuclear threats over Ukraine or to move nuclear weapon systems in a threatening way. This is probably the bit of the Chinese plan that is most appealing to the US and Ukraine, after the opening section on protecting sovereignty.
(I should point out that Point 12, ‘Promoting post-conflict reconstruction’, has been seen by some as a naked early attempt to get Chinese hands on some of the lucrative postwar reconstruction contracts: ‘China stands ready to provide assistance and play a constructive role in this endeavor.’)
What about the final piece of the jigsaw puzzle, Russia?
Russia gets a lot of juicy support in the peace plan. Perhaps the most surprising nod is in a section which has a largely anti-Russian tone because it’s against the threat or use of nuclear weapons.
Point 8 balances this out by indirectly referring to Russian propaganda about secret US bioweapons labs in Ukraine, a claim used to justify the Russian invasion: ‘China opposes the research, development and use of chemical and biological weapons by any country under any circumstances.’
Much more important support for Russia comes in Point 2, on ‘abandoning the Cold War mentality’: ‘The security of a country should not be pursued at the expense of others. The security of a region should not be achieved by strengthening or expanding military blocs.’
Taking just these two sentences out of the Point might give an impression of balance. They could be read as saying: (1) Russia shouldn’t attack Ukraine; (2) NATO shouldn’t expand.
However, the first sentence could also be read as: (1) Ukraine shouldn’t pursue its security by joining NATO, at the expense of legitimate Russian security interests.
Point 2 also calls for the prevention of ‘bloc confrontation’.
Overall, this Point supports the argument that Ukraine becoming integrated into NATO, and perhaps soon formally becoming a NATO member, was the cause of the Russian invasion. In Moscow, that amounts to saying that the threat of NATO expansion justified the invasion.
We’ve already referred to other sections that give comfort to Russia: Point 9 (which supports ‘the Black Sea Grain Initiative signed by Russia, Türkiye, Ukraine and the UN’); Point 10 (on ending unilateral sanctions); and Point 11 (which opposes ‘using the world economy as a tool or weapon for political purposes’).
Jaw-jaw not war-war
The most important effect of the peace plan is probably to boost the chances of peace negotiations happening, by raising the idea in such a public fashion. It may be worth quoting the relevant section in full:
‘4. Resuming peace talks. Dialogue and negotiation are the only viable solution to the Ukraine crisis. All efforts conducive to the peaceful settlement of the crisis must be encouraged and supported. The international community should stay committed to the right approach of promoting talks for peace, help parties to the conflict open the door to a political settlement as soon as possible, and create conditions and platforms for the resumption of negotiation. China will continue to play a constructive role in this regard.’
The full text of China's peace plan is below.
China's Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis
24 February 2023
1. Respecting the sovereignty of all countries. Universally recognized international law, including the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter, must be strictly observed. The sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries must be effectively upheld. All countries, big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor, are equal members of the international community. All parties should jointly uphold the basic norms governing international relations and defend international fairness and justice. Equal and uniform application of international law should be promoted, while double standards must be rejected.
2. Abandoning the Cold War mentality. The security of a country should not be pursued at the expense of others. The security of a region should not be achieved by strengthening or expanding military blocs. The legitimate security interests and concerns of all countries must be taken seriously and addressed properly. There is no simple solution to a complex issue. All parties should, following the vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security and bearing in mind the long-term peace and stability of the world, help forge a balanced, effective and sustainable European security architecture. All parties should oppose the pursuit of one's own security at the cost of others' security, prevent bloc confrontation, and work together for peace and stability on the Eurasian Continent.
3. Ceasing hostilities. Conflict and war benefit no one. All parties must stay rational and exercise restraint, avoid fanning the flames and aggravating tensions, and prevent the crisis from deteriorating further or even spiraling out of control. All parties should support Russia and Ukraine in working in the same direction and resuming direct dialogue as quickly as possible, so as to gradually deescalate the situation and ultimately reach a comprehensive ceasefire.
4. Resuming peace talks. Dialogue and negotiation are the only viable solution to the Ukraine crisis. All efforts conducive to the peaceful settlement of the crisis must be encouraged and supported. The international community should stay committed to the right approach of promoting talks for peace, help parties to the conflict open the door to a political settlement as soon as possible, and create conditions and platforms for the resumption of negotiation. China will continue to play a constructive role in this regard.
5. Resolving the humanitarian crisis. All measures conducive to easing the humanitarian crisis must be encouraged and supported. Humanitarian operations should follow the principles of neutrality and impartiality, and humanitarian issues should not be politicized. The safety of civilians must be effectively protected, and humanitarian corridors should be set up for the evacuation of civilians from conflict zones. Efforts are needed to increase humanitarian assistance to relevant areas, improve humanitarian conditions, and provide rapid, safe and unimpeded humanitarian access, with a view to preventing a humanitarian crisis on a larger scale. The UN should be supported in playing a coordinating role in channeling humanitarian aid to conflict zones.
6. Protecting civilians and prisoners of war (POWs). Parties to the conflict should strictly abide by international humanitarian law, avoid attacking civilians or civilian facilities, protect women, children and other victims of the conflict, and respect the basic rights of POWs. China supports the exchange of POWs between Russia and Ukraine, and calls on all parties to create more favorable conditions for this purpose.
7. Keeping nuclear power plants safe. China opposes armed attacks against nuclear power plants or other peaceful nuclear facilities, and calls on all parties to comply with international law including the Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS) and resolutely avoid man-made nuclear accidents. China supports the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in playing a constructive role in promoting the safety and security of peaceful nuclear facilities.
8. Reducing strategic risks. Nuclear weapons must not be used and nuclear wars must not be fought. The threat or use of nuclear weapons should be opposed. Nuclear proliferation must be prevented and nuclear crisis avoided. China opposes the research, development and use of chemical and biological weapons by any country under any circumstances.
9. Facilitating grain exports. All parties need to implement the Black Sea Grain Initiative signed by Russia, Türkiye, Ukraine and the UN fully and effectively in a balanced manner, and support the UN in playing an important role in this regard. The cooperation initiative on global food security proposed by China provides a feasible solution to the global food crisis.
10. Stopping unilateral sanctions. Unilateral sanctions and maximum pressure cannot solve the issue; they only create new problems. China opposes unilateral sanctions unauthorized by the UN Security Council. Relevant countries should stop abusing unilateral sanctions and "long-arm jurisdiction" against other countries, so as to do their share in deescalating the Ukraine crisis and create conditions for developing countries to grow their economies and better the lives of their people.
11. Keeping industrial and supply chains stable. All parties should earnestly maintain the existing world economic system and oppose using the world economy as a tool or weapon for political purposes. Joint efforts are needed to mitigate the spillovers of the crisis and prevent it from disrupting international cooperation in energy, finance, food trade and transportation and undermining the global economic recovery.
12. Promoting post-conflict reconstruction. The international community needs to take measures to support post-conflict reconstruction in conflict zones. China stands ready to provide assistance and play a constructive role in this endeavor.