China has been emphatically trying to put itself forward as a peacemaker in Ukraine in the past week. The country considers itself a neutral party in the war and today came up with a twelve-point plan containing all kinds of proposals to bring the conflict to an end.
But China is known in the West as Russia’s most important ally, which has remained squarely behind Moscow despite Russian aggression in Ukraine. How seriously should Beijing’s efforts be taken?
The starting point for China is therefore that twelve-point plan, which does not contain many new positions. The text contains many generalities and hardly any concrete action points. China argues that “no one benefits from conflict and war” and that there is “no easy solution to a complex problem”.
China calls for a ceasefire and respect for countries’ sovereignty. There must also be peace negotiations, in which China “will adopt a constructive attitude”.
This emphasis on the sovereignty of countries, or their independence, undermines the credibility of the whole piece, says China expert Ingrid d’Hooghe (Clingendael Institute). “Because that is exactly what Russia did not do with the invasion, it violated Ukraine’s sovereignty.” She says the Chinese are not saying it out loud, but they are implying – like Russia – that Russia is not guilty of occupying other people’s territory.
Stand by Russia
How hard China will actually work for peace remains unclear. Moreover, a ceasefire is seen in the West as an opportunity for Russia to strengthen its positions and bring in new troops and equipment.
If China does make one thing clear in the text, it is that it stands behind Moscow. For example, the punitive measures against Russia must be scrapped, “because they only make the problems worse”. China speaks of the abuse of sanctions and “the long arm” of countries, which was used to refer to the US in an earlier piece.
It also thinks that ‘cold war thinking’, in particular the expansion of military alliances, should disappear. Although NATO is not explicitly mentioned here, it is clear that China means this Western military alliance. The years of expansion of NATO and a possible Ukrainian membership, which the country has been asking for for years, were the reasons for Putin to invade Ukraine.
Not only diplomatically, China continues to support Russia, for example by abstaining from voting at the United Nations, but economic ties have also been strengthened considerably. For example, China is the main buyer of Russian oil, which the country can no longer sell in the EU due to sanctions. Putin said last week that he expects two-way trade to reach $200 billion this year, up from $185 billion last year.
To further illustrate the good ties, Putin also said that his colleague Xi will soon visit him. Moscow has been hinting for months at a state visit by the Chinese president to Russia sometime this spring, but the Chinese have not yet confirmed that plan.
Place at the table
China’s 12-point plan is received with little enthusiasm in the West. President of the European Commission Von der Leyen did not want to call the proposal a peace plan. “Moreover, China has already taken sides,” she stressed. NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg says China has little credibility as a mediator. “It hasn’t even condemned the illegal invasion,” he said.
d’Hooghe explains that with this plan China wants to reinforce the image that it is the guardian of world peace. According to her, that message does not resonate in the West, but it does in Africa, South America and the Middle East. “It also wants to reserve a place at the negotiating table, for when a truce or peace is eventually discussed. It is actually sorting for that, also so that it can play a role in the reconstruction of Ukraine later.”
Zelensky would like to speak with Xi
And Ukraine itself? President Zelensky said today that he is planning to meet with Xi. That has not happened since the outbreak of the war, not even a telephone conversation between Xi and Zelensky. He thinks the meeting will be “beneficial for both countries and for global security”. He did not say when that meeting would take place.
The Ukrainian envoy to China reacted cautiously positively and hopes that Beijing will play a more active role in ending the conflict. Asked by the NOS about China’s position, she noted that President Xi had already spoken to Putin several times, but to her regret not yet to Zelensky. “If they want to be neutral, they have to speak to both sides.”
She calls on Beijing to do more. “China must do everything it can to urge Russia to withdraw troops from Ukraine and end the war.”
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