ZOiS Spotlight 6/2023

China’s Peace Plan for Ukraine: Responsible Leadership?

by Valentin Krüsmann 22/03/2023

Chinese president Xi Jinping reportedly plans to speak with his Ukrainian counterpart later this month. But China’s positioning towards Russia shows that far from being an honest broker, it is using the war to present itself to the global South as a responsible leader while framing the US in the opposite terms.

China's President Xi Jinping and Russia's President Vladimir Putin during a state dinner hosted at the Moscow Kremlin. © IMAGO / ITAR-TASS

A year into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China issued a 12-point position paper outlining a ‘Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis’. A month later, on 21 March Chinese president Xi Jinping met Russian president Vladimir Putin in Moscow, with the latter claiming that Russia is ‘ready to discuss the proposals’ and ‘always open for a negotiation process’. While it has attracted significant attention, China’s plan largely reiterates existing Chinese positions; it pays lip service to the principle of sovereignty, calls for respect for the ‘legitimate security interests and concerns of all countries’, and seeks an end to unilateral sanctions. Despite reported plans for Xi to speak with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyi later in March, China’s positioning also shows that it is using the war to present itself to the global South as a responsible leader for peace and security while framing the US in the opposite terms.

Addressing audiences in the global South            

It is no surprise that China’s peace plan has failed to strike a chord in Western capitals. As EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell summarised, ‘It is not really a peace plan and mostly reiterates well-known Chinese positions […] the key problem is that it does not really distinguish [the] aggressor from the victim.’ Despite welcoming a meeting between Xi and Zelenskyi in principle, Western leaders have made clear that China’s document itself includes no credible suggestions for ending the war.

Beijing is aware that its proposal will not win over hearts in Europe or the US. Instead, the plan is aimed at China’s domestic population and audiences in the global South. Importantly, three days before issuing its proposal, Beijing revealed a concept paper outlining key points for achieving ‘world peace’ under its nascent Global Security Initiative. The paper alludes to China’s role as a multilateral cooperation partner for peace, particularly via Chinese-led or -initiated institutions, such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the BRICS group of Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, or the China-Africa Peace and Security Forum. China claims that over 80 countries and regional organisations already support the initiative.

This push builds on China’s growing visibility as a conflict mediator in the global South, where it has played important roles in conflict mediation in places such as South Sudan, the Horn of Africa, and Myanmar. In 2021, Beijing put forward a similarly vague four-point proposal to de-escalate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On 10 March 2023, China brokered a surprise diplomatic breakthrough between Iran and Saudi Arabia under which the two countries will re-establish diplomatic relations. China’s plan for Ukraine is thus positioned within a wider effort to present Beijing as a responsible partner for peace.

China’s position resonates

Despite a diversity of positions in the global South, the notion of a negotiated political settlement for Ukraine resonates with many nations. In part due to global reverberations from the war, a growing number of countries in the global South wish a speedy end to the conflict or are sympathetic to Russia’s criticism of NATO enlargement and Western intervention in the internal affairs of sovereign states – a position frequently echoed by China. While 141 states voted in favour of a February 2023 UN resolution calling on Russia to end hostilities in Ukraine, there were notable abstentions in the vote. In addition to China, these included India and South Africa, of which the latter has recently been conducting joint military exercises with Russia and China in the Indian Ocean.

In this context, Namibian prime minister Saara Kuugongelwa stated that Namibia’s focus ‘is on resolving the problem [...] not on shifting blame’. In a similar vein, Brazil’s foreign minster Mauro Vieira said that in ‘building the possibility of a solution […] we would have to go step by step, perhaps first create an atmosphere that makes a negotiation possible’. Moreover, on the sidelines of the February 2023 G20 summit in Bengaluru, Indian officials stated that the G20 was not a political meeting and contended that the ‘existing sanctions on Russia have had a negative impact on the world’. By issuing a position paper for a political settlement of the crisis, China both targets and gives voice to these sentiments while garnering credibility as a global leader.

At the same time, Beijing is working hard to discredit the US. China’s proposals frame events such as the war in Ukraine in terms of great-power politics. Ukraine’s autonomy does not feature heavily in the proposals, and China’s messaging frequently targets the US and NATO as the driving forces behind the war. Speaking at his first press conference as China’s new foreign minister on 7 March, Qin Gang contended that ‘there seems to be an “invisible hand” pushing for the protraction and escalation of the conflict’. In this context, Beijing presents itself in direct opposition to Washington, promoting itself as a leader of what Xi referred to as the ‘progressive forces around the world who oppose hegemony and power politics’.

China capitalising on credibility

While targeting the global South to present itself as a responsible leader for peace and stability, China faces dilemmas and contradictions. Since Russia’s invasion, Beijing has been playing a balancing game between three irreconcilable positions: adhering to its long-standing principles of non-interference and respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, maintaining a mutually strategic partnership with Russia, and avoiding secondary sanctions or economic fallout with the West.

In previous conflicts in which China was able to mediate, it often had to test the boundaries of its non-interference policy. While Beijing is doing so in the case of the war in Ukraine, its support for Russia shows that despite verbal commitments to its long-standing principles, it is willing to compromise on its position on sovereignty and territorial integrity. China places a higher value on its strategic partnership with Russia than on positive economic relations with Europe.

Perhaps more fundamentally, in meaningful cases of Chinese mediation, China has also had broadly overlapping interests with regional and Western partners in securing peace. And while plans for Xi to speak with Zelenskyi may mark an important shift in China’s posture, the content of the Chinese peace proposal does not suggest any imminent outcomes, particularly as the US and the West continue to be framed by China as the driving forces behind the war. Indeed, as Putin stated during Xi’s visit in Moscow, the plan can only be put forward when ‘they are ready in the West and in Kyiv’. As Beijing’s 12-point paper does not budge on the ‘legitimate security concerns of all parties’, China continues to disqualify itself as a mediator. But as long as China can present itself as a responsible power to receptive audiences, it can capitalise on the war in Ukraine by portraying itself as a leading voice of reason while it continues to discredit others.

Valentin Krüsmann is a researcher and doctoral student at ZOiS. His research is embedded within the BMBF-funded network project ‘De:link//Re:link: Local perspectives on transregional processes of entanglements and disentanglements’.