Opinion & Analysis

Can China bring peace to Ukraine?

China has presented a twelve-point peace plan for resolving the war in Ukraine, but can these proposals really bring an end to the conflict? Michael Cox examines China’s motivations and what the country’s increasingly assertive calls for peace mean for Russia, Ukraine and the wider world.

Many years back when Deng XiaoPing was advising China to hide its ‘strength’ and ‘bide’ its ‘time’, a number of Chinese academics decided to provide what, in effect, was a rationale that would lend theoretical weight to Deng’s words of caution. Presented at a time when some in the West – the US most obviously – were talking up the China threat, these scholars made the case that whereas the rise of other powers in the 20th century had disturbed the international system, China’s would be altogether different. Making the not unreasonable point that China’s future stability and prosperity rested on China rising within the existing order, the case for China’s ‘peaceful rise’, as it soon became known, seemed irrefutable.

Much water has passed under the bridge since those optimistic times, and whether or not one prefers to lay the blame for the decline in relations at the door of America’s ‘unilateralism and hegemonism’ as China asserts, Xi’s more assertive policies abroad and repressive policies at home, or simply China’s enhanced position in the world system, does not really matter very much. We are where we are, and where we are is in a very different and more dangerous place than many in the West, and indeed in China, might have hoped for earlier in the century.

But even if the world has changed and China’s relations with the West have soured dramatically, Beijing’s attachment to the idea of ‘peace’ – though not it would seem to the theory of ‘peaceful rise’ – remains undiminished. Indeed, over the past few months it appears to have gone on to what old cold warriors used to call a ‘peace offensive’. This has not only led to Beijing attempting to reconcile the apparently irreconcilable in the Middle East by bringing Iran and Saudi Arabia together, but trying to do the same with Russia and Ukraine.

China’s peace plan

China’s twelve-point peace ‘plan’ was announced with great gusto by Beijing’s most senior diplomat Wang Yi at a security conference held in Munich in mid-February. Promoted as part of a wider attempt to define its own security in the world, many must have hoped that a conflict which amongst other things had already killed and wounded hundreds of thousands while causing one of the greatest refugee crises since World War II, might now at last be coming to an end.

Whether China itself was quite so optimistic is not at all clear. However, an opening salvo had been launched after months of war, and some no doubt thought that a corner had been turned. Indeed, when President Macron met with the Chinese leader a few weeks later in Beijing, apart from signing a number of important trade deals, he took time out to try and convince Xi that if China had an interest in furthering the cause of peace, which he claimed he did, he should sit down with his best friend Putin and put pressure on him to see sense and bring the conflict to an end.

But as we know, nothing of the sort happened. The war in the East around Bakhmut continued with the same savage intensity and Russian rockets continued to rain down on targets across the rest of Ukraine. Meanwhile, Ukraine made preparations for its long-expected spring offensive. Even the Russians were not convinced of China’s peace plan. As Putin’s presidential spokesman put it, even though ‘around half’ of the Chinese proposals echoed ‘the initiatives which Moscow’ had already ‘put forward to the West’, they did not go far enough to bring Russia’s ‘special military operation’ to a conclusion. The conflict would continue until its ‘goal’, however defined, was ‘attained’.

But how genuine were China’s proposals anyway? Here opinion differed greatly with those less sympathetic to Beijing dismissing its ‘plan’ almost out of hand – US Secretary of State Blinken even suggested that it might well be a ‘trap’ – whereas others who were closer to China, such as the Brazilian President Lula, believed it might form a basis for future discussions. As Lula suggested when on a later state visit to Beijing (accompanied by 240 business representatives: France only took 50) the world should be taking advantage of the opening provided by China and move quickly to establish a group of countries not involved with the Russia-Ukraine war in order ‘to broker’ a ‘peace’.

Giving peace a chance

Even those willing to take China’s peace plan seriously could hardly ignore its limitations. For one thing, it put no demands on Russia, and while some of its proposals were not in of themselves unreasonable – say on humanitarian assistance and making sure nuclear weapons remained firmly under lock and key – when it came to allocating responsibility for the war (which it still declined to call a war) it laid it all at the door of NATO and the US. Moreover, though China did call for a ceasefire, it made no reference at all to the fact that Russia had invaded Ukraine and said nothing at all about Ukraine’s own peace proposals. It was all rather one-sided.

It was hardly surprising therefore that China’s ‘plan for peace’ had few takers in the West; and even if Zelensky himself agreed that the proposals were not bad, he added the significant caveat that their real importance lay less in what they said but how they might be used to isolate Russia. But in most western capitals they received short shrift. However, the West had never been China’s intended audience. That lay elsewhere in the Global South where China, and even Russia, had many more friends and where the war was not always seen through a western lens.

Moreover, though it would not admit to it, China was involved in a wider diplomatic game: namely of demonstrating to the world at large that whilst it at least was doing something to bring the conflict to an end, the United States was only adding fuel to the fire by arming Ukraine and sanctioning Russia. As Xi later stressed when at last he did talk to Ukraine’s President Zelensky in April, unlike other international actors who were in his words ‘taking advantage of the crisis to profit from it’, China stood now, as it had always done, on the ‘side of peace’.

But what chance for peace?

Even if Xi like John Lennon was prepared to give peace a chance, what possibility was there of the war actually winding down? Pundits could speculate, and some did, about a new grand bargain in the making in which the West would bring pressure to bear on Ukraine and China on Russia in order to terminate a conflict that neither side could win.

But as Barry Buzan points out in his follow up piece, there were powerful factors working in the other direction that made any form of negotiated settlement highly unlikely. Some countries who were not directly involved in the war, and indeed were suffering its consequences might prefer that this ‘little local conflict’ which by 2023 had taken on global significance be brought to a speedy conclusion. But as often happens, those actually engaged in the fighting on the ground did not feel anything like the same degree of urgency.

Nor, to be blunt, did their principal backers. China may have talked peace but did not seem willing to bring enough pressure to bear upon Russia to get round the table. Meanwhile, in the US, even if public backing for the war may not have been as unconditional as some hawks might have hoped, for the time being Washington was prepared to continue supporting Ukraine – in large part because Kyiv’s position on the battlefield looked like it might improve over the summer, thus further weakening Russia and possibly making it less of a threat over the longer term.

The conflict thus looked set to go on for the foreseeable future. History might show that all wars end; and no doubt this one would end too – one day. But as the first year of a very bloody conflict segued into a second, it very much looked as if Putin’s ill-considered decision to mount a ‘special military operation’ against its neighbour would roll on until the various parties to the conflict either felt the costs had become so excessive that there was no alternative but to call a halt, or threatened to move beyond the boundaries within which it had hitherto been contained.

Until that tipping moment had been reached there was very little hope that there would be any easy exit from the tragedy in Ukraine, one which had changed the security architecture of Europe for ever, transformed Russia for the worst, and further divided an already fractious world.

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