China has proposed a Ukraine peace plan, but why now?

A pragmatic Beijing is seeking more than just a ceasefire as the conflict passes its one-year anniversary

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and China's top diplomat, Wang Yi, attend a bilateral meeting at the Munich Security Conference earlier this month. Reuters
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At the Munich Security Conference last week, China sought to engage European leaders. Its top diplomat, Wang Yi, then visited Moscow to co-ordinate preparations for an upcoming visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping to the Russian capital. Beijing, it seems, is searching for ways to avoid being dragged into an escalation with the West amid the Ukraine war. It is, therefore, presenting itself as a possible mediator between Russia and its western adversaries.

It is intriguing to watch how in an era of conflict, China is attempting to position itself via-a-vis the US, the world’s other dominant pole, in the event that Russia is defeated in Ukraine and in the global order that could emerge from such an eventuality.

To be sure, the Ukraine conflict is not a “world war”. It is an armed conflict between two sides. Russia has been unable to rally international support, as the Soviet Union was once able to do during the Cold War. The world might appear divided on Ukraine, as one camp condemns western colonialism and American imperialism while the other remains opposed to one country invading another. But no matter how hard the US tries to convince the likes of China, India, South Africa, Brazil and others to move away from Russia, ultimately, the war remains bilateral not global.

Western, and even Ukrainian, leaders have decided not to dismiss China’s peace initiative before understanding the substance of it

As of today, the war isn’t going well for Moscow. In the process, it has deprived itself of its status as an international player and taken itself out of what seemed to be a “tripolar world” alongside the US and China. Russia is, at best, a regional player with limited capabilities today. The current scenario has given Washington reason to believe that Russia is weaker – and that without a strong Russia, China is also weaker.

Concerns about Russia are now primarily over its nuclear capabilities, and no longer over its conventional military prowess. Some today view Russia as a power unable to change the world but still able to destroy it. They will point to, for example, President Vladimir Putin’s announcement last Tuesday to suspend Russia’s New Start nuclear arms treaty with the US. It might be reassuring that he did not fully withdraw from it, but it is worrying that Moscow has linked the treaty’s revival with its demand that Nato stop sending arms shipments to Ukraine – which is next-to-impossible.

In his speech last week, Mr Putin blamed the West for starting the war by refusing to guarantee Moscow that it will never bring Ukraine into Nato. Likewise, US President Joe Biden’s statements and speeches during his surprise visit to Ukraine before a scheduled trip to Poland did not suggest he was in a mood for political solutions either.

Both leaders affirmed in their respective speeches that the US-Russia stand-off goes far beyond Ukraine, and that the world is now more dangerous, with no way to build a bridge over the gaping chasm between the two countries. The European leaders are lining up behind American leadership, endorsing the Biden administration’s view that the war is now about values such as democracy and requires unparalleled unity among Nato member states. And this is regardless of the stands taken by the so-called Global South.

China has entered the fray because it rejects notions of a unipolar world. It has decided that its interests require its involvement in Ukraine, with a plan to end the war at a time when US officials allege that Beijing might supply arms to Russia for its war effort.

US President Joe Biden with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in front of St Michael’s Golden-Domed Cathedral in Kyiv last week. AFP

But western, and even Ukrainian, leaders have decided not to dismiss China’s peace initiative before understanding the substance of it. They know that a pragmatic Beijing worries about the adverse impact the war could have on its own interests. China has concluded that if Russia does not achieve its objectives in the war, it might have to stand alone against US-led Nato, and does not want to endorse anything that could undermine its long-term strategic interests.

The Chinese initiative will, nonetheless, be a hard sell in both the West and Russia. At the time of writing, the details are sketchy, but it is unlikely that the principles Beijing appears to uphold – including territorial integrity – will be acceptable to the Russians. The Chinese proposal of securing a ceasefire in return for Nato halting weapons shipments to Ukraine will also be a non-starter in the West, particularly as the latter prepares for a spring offensive aiming to defeat Russia. Moreover, the West is not sympathetic to China’s fears of a Russian defeat and from the beginning has sought to weaken rather than strengthen it.

What could China want if its initiative fails to stop the war and kickstart a peace process? It seeks to reconfigure its relations with the US before a decisive military outcome, especially if that outcome is a Ukrainian victory, in the emerging bipolar world.

The Ukraine war has certainly changed the world. It is forcing everyone to rethink both tactically and strategically because the old ways to resolve conflicts are obsolete and beyond resurrection. Today, there are few new mechanisms even amid fears we could eventually descend into a third world war.

The key problem is that all players are retreating into a state of hypervigilance without opening any window to search for international security guarantees. And as the rest of the world wonders what the month of March might bring, the era of militarised diplomacy continues – with military solutions, and not political ones, on the table.

Published: February 26, 2023, 2:21 PM