China’s Plan for Ukraine Is No Plan at All

China’s position paper won’t contribute to peace in Ukraine, but it does offer useful insights into how Beijing conceives of its global role.

Chinese top diplomat Wang Yi with Vladimir Putin in 2018. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / kremlin.ru

On February 24, one year after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, China released a paper on “China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis.”

In classic Beijing style, the document unpacks China’s official position in 12 points. These points repeat previous Chinese positions on the conflict, and in this sense do not offer anything new in terms of Beijing’s rhetoric and supposed neutrality. They do, however, offer several useful insights into China’s own perception about its role in the international arena as well as its positioning with respect to global dynamics of power.

On the one hand, the document openly condemns the use of nuclear weapons, calls for a military de-escalation, and claims that China will continue to play a constructive role in these regards. On the other hand, the position paper remains vague on several key issues, reinforcing the perception that China continues to distance itself from directly engaging in the resolution of the conflict.

Furthermore, doubts remain about China’s possibility to function as a realistic mediator, both in terms of its ability to perform these functions and its international legitimacy to do so. While the document aims to project China as a third party to the conflict, the visit to China of Belarus’ President Alexander Lukashenko this week, as well as recent speculations about China’s possible supply of weapons to Russia, leave little to no doubt that China cannot be considered as a credible mediator.

The document also reaffirms China’s opposition to unilateral economic restrictions, explicitly calling for the cessation of Western sanctions.

Overall, the position paper once again falls short of condemning the Russian invasion and instead displays several, if implicit, signs that China’s preferable outcome for this conflict is a Russian victory.

The title of the document already tells us a great deal about China’s position. The reference to the conflict as “the Ukraine crisis” anticipates the missing condemnation of Russia’s invasion. Similarly, the reference to a “political settlement” informs us about the ultimate scope of the document, which addresses the conflict in political rather than military or diplomatic terms.

The document rehashes several positions that China has long held in the international arena. For instance, the very first point on “Respecting the sovereignty of all countries” stems from China’s traditional concerns for territorial integrity. This issue constitutes a key element of China’s national identity and connects to the Chinese Communist Party’s ideological pillars, including the “century of humiliation.”

At the same time, the rhetorical formulation that “all countries, big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor, are equal members of the international community” underscores China’s attempts at positioning itself as the leader and main voice of the Global South against hegemonic powers. The anti-U.S. rhetoric of this point further emerges in the supposed rejection of double standards, implicitly pointing at Washington’s alleged hegemonic conduct. While China claims to reject a “Cold War mentality” and the creation of military blocs, Beijing itself depicts the conflict in terms of an ideological battle between Russia and NATO. Indeed, the document confirms that China stands with Russia in this ideological confrontation.

The document then addresses the need to resume peaceful talks and promote a political settlement of the issue. Point 4 concludes by saying that China “will continue to play a constructive role in this regard.” Similarly, Point 12 closes the document by affirming that China “supports post-conflict reconstruction in conflict zones.”

However, China, in light of its “friendship without limits” with Russia, is not a realistic mediator between the interested parties in this conflict.

Point 3 further strengthens the rhetorical force of the document by saying that “the international community should stay committed to the right approach of promoting peace talks.” As in the case with the reference in Point 1 to “the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter,” in Point 5 China stresses the need to coordinate humanitarian efforts through the United Nations. Up until this point, the first part of the document closes with the declaration of China’s support for the protection of civilians and the respect of basic rights of prisoners of war. However, the position paper offers no details on how these critical issues ought to be resolved in practical terms.

The last six points shift the focus from the conflict to broader dynamics emerging from it, with a focus on economic and security matters. For instance, China affirms its opposition to armed attacks against nuclear plants and, again, calls on the U.N. and the International Atomic Energy Agency to play a central role. Its position against the use of nuclear weapons is further reinforced in Point 8, which argues that “The threat or use of nuclear weapons should be opposed. Nuclear proliferation must be prevented and nuclear crisis avoided.”

While these points confirm China’s preference for U.N.-mediated solutions, they offer little to no practical guidelines on how to implement such measures. On paper, China’s official position might be interpreted as a message to the Russian leadership. At the same time, it clearly contrasts with China’s recent efforts to modernize its own nuclear power, reinforcing doubts about the country’s genuine commitment to nuclear non-proliferation.

The closing points unveil China’s concerns with respect to the economic impact of the conflict. Other than calling for the implementation of the Black Sea Grain Initiative signed by Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, and the U.N., it connects with China’s broader ambition of leading a coalition of states toward its proposed initiative on global food security.

The document once more argues that China denounces the use of unilateral sanctions. Unsurprisingly, this reveals an implicit support for U.N.-mediated sanctions, which are unrealistic as Russia would veto them. At the same time, China’s support for the maintenance of existing global supply chains connects with broader concerns about its possible exclusion from key markets, as it is the case with the export controls enforced by the United States and other countries on semiconductors. As specified in the document, Beijing opposes “using the world economy as a tool or weapon for political purposes.”

To be sure, in light of China’s shrinking domestic market, the increased economic opposition faced by the country at the international level is becoming a concerning issue for its leadership. But China itself has repeatedly used economic tools for political purposes, not least recently as part of its retaliatory measures against Taiwan. Therefore, its main concern with the implementation of unilateral sanctions against Russia seems to stem more from a political rationale than an economic one.

In the end, the position paper predictably offers nothing new in terms of its rhetoric. China continues to walk the fine line between its support for Russia and its attempts at not deteriorating its already fraught relations with Western countries; it repeats ad nauseam the same points that Beijing always expresses internationally, including respect for state sovereignty and international law; and most importantly it does not advance any concrete or practical solution to the conflict.

The paper’s main objective rather seems to appease the West and keep at bay some of the criticism for China’s inaction and continued support for Putin.

 

The authors

  • Giacomo Bruni is a doctoral researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).
  • Ilaria Carrozza is a senior researcher at the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

This text was first published by The Diplomat 01 March 2023.

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