Beijing’s “Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis” has now been officially released by the country’s foreign ministry, after being foreshadowed by China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, at the recent Munich Security Conference.
Short on detail and rich in generalities, the peace plan confirms what Beijing sees as China’s “balanced position”. This, to date, has avoided directly pointing the finger of blame at anyone and continues to leave ample room for interpretation. It may not offer a clearly charted path out of the crisis, but it is an important statement of China’s vision for global, Eurasian and European security.
Coming from a major – and still rising – power, it would be a mistake to dismiss it out of hand simply because this vision is not shared in western capitals.
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While vague in its overall language, the sequence of what the Chinese position reveals is important. The plan starts by restating one of China’s red lines, its long-held position on the sacrosanct nature of sovereignty and territorial integrity. This is very much in line with the prevailing position of the overwhelming majority of UN members.
So it was curious that when 141 members of the UN general assembly voted the day before the first anniversary of the invasion in support of a resolution demanding “that the Russian Federation immediately, completely and unconditionally withdraw all of its military forces from the territory of Ukraine within its internationally recognised borders”, China was not among them. The PRC instead abstained, consistent with its past votes, along with India, Iran, South Africa and 28 other countries.
The six countries which voted with Russia against the resolution, including Eritrea, North Korea, and Syria, can hardly be considered promoters of international peace and stability.
China’s apparent fence sitting may be annoying for Ukraine and its western partners. But it is not inconsistent with Beijing’s position on the need to respect sovereignty and territorial integrity. Provided, that is, one accepts that the full restoration of Ukraine’s international borders is a possible outcome of the peace negotiations that China is advocating for.
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More worryingly, for Ukraine, its western partners, and the future European security order, is that China has adopted a position that is sympathetic to Russia’s narrative of Nato expansion as a threat to Russia. Beijing’s call, in the peace plan, to abandon “the cold war mentality” also asks that “the legitimate security interests and concerns of all countries must be taken seriously and addressed properly”. The plan also stresses that “all parties should oppose the pursuit of one’s own security at the cost of others’ security”.
This is as much a reference to Nato’s eastwards expansion as it is to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, ostensibly to counter Nato expansion.
So, while far short of an outright condemnation of Russian aggression, it is hardly a ringing endorsement of it either. Nor is it a blank cheque for Nato and EU expansion.
China’s ‘honest broker’ ambitions
To the extent that China makes any concrete proposals in its plan, they are focused on achieving a ceasefire and eventually resuming peace talks with the aim of negotiating a political settlement. This is implicitly a call for unconditional negotiations (first on a ceasefire and then on a peace agreement). It’s a position unlikely to be welcomed either by Ukraine or its western partners, who have insisted to date that negotiations cannot happen while Russia occupies Crimea and large parts of Donbas.
Interestingly, however, China has also acknowledged that “conditions and platforms for the resumption of negotiations” have yet to be created. Beijing has offered “to play a constructive role in this regard”. This could potentially create an opening in the future should China decide to use its increasing leverage over Russia and push Putin into meaningful negotiations.
Whether, when, and how China will do this will depend on what role Beijing sees for itself in the future of European security. What the Chinese plan indicates are ambitions for a greater and more pivotal role – their vagueness at this stage perhaps reflecting China’s own uncertainties more than anything else.
China’s other main concern remains the humanitarian crises that war has sparked both in Ukraine and beyond. China emphasises the need “to increase humanitarian assistance to relevant areas … and provide rapid, safe and unimpeded humanitarian access, with a view to preventing a humanitarian crisis on a larger scale”.
Again hardly endorsing the Russian way of warfare, Beijing reiterates that the “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 (prisoners of war)”.
China’s concerns about global stability are evident throughout the position paper. They relate to the risk of nuclear escalation (via weapons on the battlefield and through the targeting of nuclear power plants), the disruption of global economic recovery, and the ongoing food and energy crisis. Here China clearly articulates broader concerns shared by many countries in the global south and effectively positions itself as a champion of their interests.
The last point of the plan emphasises the need “to take measures to support post-conflict reconstruction in conflict zones” and offers Chinese assistance in doing so.
In its generality, the plan adds little substance – but it creates another opportunity for China to emphasise its commitment to playing a role in the longer-term reconfiguration of stability and security in Europe.
This is consistent with the general tenor of Beijing’s position paper: it puts a marker down for China as a great power on the “Eurasian continent”. This does not bode well for Russia’s own great power ambitions and creates new challenges for Ukraine and the west.
Stefan Wolff receives funding from the Natural Environment Research Council of the UK. He is also a past recipient of grants from the United States Institute of Peace, the Economic and Social Research Council of the UK, the British Academy, the NATO Science for Peace Programme, the EU Framework Programmes 6 and 7 and Horizon 2020, as well as the EU's Jean Monnet Programme. He is a Senior Research Fellow at the Foreign Policy Centre in London and Co-Coordinator of the OSCE Network of Think Tanks and Academic Institutions.