Here, I try to make sense of the recently put-out Chinese position statement on the Ukraine crisis and why it can hardly be seen as a “peace plan” per se.
Coinciding with the first anniversary of Vladimir Putin-led Russia’s ongoing military offensive on eastern Ukraine, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs has put forth a statement with 12 points, articulating its position on the Russia-Ukraine conflict that has entered its second year now. The set of principles were put out amid U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s allegations that China may be providing non-lethal weapons to Russia and may even be considering sending lethal military assistance, a claim that Beijing strongly denies. While a section of the media and the public have been interpreting the Chinese statement as a “peace plan”, it strikingly fails to address the core factors that prolong the conflict and falters on several fronts such as lacking completeness and clarity of expression, leaving ample room for doubt. The statement merely reiterates its long-held positions on the conflict in a rather elaborative way.
Key points and continuing ambiguity
The statement includes suggestions for abandoning “Cold War mentality”, stopping sanctions on Russia imposed by the United Nations Security Council (and implicitly alludes to the West by indicating that “unilateral sanctions and maximum pressure cannot solve the issue; they only create new problems”), resuming peace talks between the two warring sides, setting up humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians from conflict zones, the exchange of prisoners of war between the two sides, promoting post-conflict reconstruction, ensuring the safety of nuclear power plants and the non-use of weapons of mass destruction. All of these are noble intentions. But, the most contentious and ambiguous of all points is the one calling for the respect of “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity” of all countries, which is vaguely and incompletely addressed in the position statement.
The Chinese statement finds no mention of issue of recognition or the current status of statehood of the Ukrainian territories captured by Russia in the last one year. This is the biggest issue that stand in the way of sustainable peace negotiations. While Kyiv says Moscow has illegally annexed four of its oblasts – namely Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhzhia and Kherson – by holding one-sided referendums in September 2022, the latter cites the outcome of the referendums as a locus standi to hold on to the captured territories. This is reminiscent of the 2014 Crimean crisis, which still remain as a long-standing bone of contention between the two East European neighbours. Following the referendums staged by Russian-installed officials in captured Ukrainian oblasts, China, along with India, Brazil and Gabon, chose to abstain from a vote at the 15-member UN Security Council on a resolution that called for condemnation of the Russian action and for the non-recognition of any changes to Ukraine’s borders since the beginning of the conflict.
Having chosen a deliberate stand not to condemn Russia’s annexations by abstaining from the vote, which was interpreted by the West as indirectly playing the second fiddle to Russia, how can China accommodate Ukraine’s legitimate concerns, particularly related to the basic question of its existence free of aggression from external threats? Another aspect of realpolitik diplomacy that has not been addressed by China is the contentious issue of NATO’s continuing expansion to eastern Europe, which concerns Russia, and the related prospect of a potential “Finlandization” of Ukraine. This would mean Kyiv will not join NATO or the European Union any time in the future, and in a boarder sense, the West will not breach Russia’s “sphere of influence” over eastern Europe.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy responded to the Chinese statement by opining that he is open to considering parts of it, and is also looking forward to meet his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, to engage in further discussions on the same. But, it has to be remembered that just about three weeks before Russia commenced its offensive on Ukraine in February 2022, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping jointly proclaimed that there are “no limits” to Sino-Russian friendship. A year later, just two days before the position statement was put out by China, its top diplomat Wang Yi met Putin in Moscow, while it claims to be “neutral” in the conflict. Meanwhile, the U.S.-led West continues to provide military assistance to Ukraine and has placed severe economic sanctions on Russia ever since the conflict began.
Mykhailo Podolyak, adviser to President Zelenskyy, made it clear that, “Any “peace plan” with ceasefire only and, as a result, a new delimitation line and continued occupation of Ukrainian territory isn’t about peace, but about freezing the war, Ukrainian defeat, next stages of Russian genocide. Ukrainian position is known – the withdrawal of Russian troops to the borders of 1991”. The fact that China is a buyer of Russian-made weapons, including advanced missile defence systems, further weakens any prospect for a Chinese involvement in Ukraine’s peace settlement, so is the case with India and Turkey, the other two prominent buyers of Russian-made weapons.
The recent surprise visit of U.S. President Joe Biden to Ukraine on the eve of the first anniversary of the Russian offensive on eastern Ukraine further complicates the geopolitical dynamics of the conflict. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen thinks that China is not a credible negotiator, having not condemned Russian actions categorically. Having a strong pro-Russian image, the West believes Beijing can never be seen as a neutral party in future peace negotiations between Kyiv and Moscow and is apprehensive of China as a non-partisan mediator. Without bringing more clarity, categoricity and completeness in its expression of position, the set of principles put forth by China will remain wishful thinking and will never find mutual acceptance for both the parties involved in the conflict.