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The ‘biggest beneficiary’ weighs in A China expert assesses Beijing’s ‘peace plan’ for Russia and Ukraine
Interview by Pyotr Sapozhnikov. English-language retelling by Sam Breazeale.
On February 24, China’s Foreign Ministry published a peace plan for ending the war in Ukraine. The document, titled “China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis,” consists of 12 points, including calls for a ceasefire, peace negotiations, guarantees for sovereignty and independence for both countries, and an end to “the expansion of military blocs” and “unilateral sanctions.” Meduza spoke to Carnegie Endowment for International Peace fellow and China expert Temur Umarov about why it’s difficult to view the proposal as a sincere attempt to reach peace, whether Xi Jinping has the ability (or the desire) to pressure Vladimir Putin, and how Beijing hopes the plan will distance it from Moscow.
The peace plan that China released on the anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine is vague, self-contradictory, and largely avoids saying anything new; arguably the most notable aspect of the proposal is that China made a statement about the war at all. According to China expert Temur Umarov, the document’s ambiguity is par for the course.
“China regularly publishes so-called ‘white books’ [manifestos outlining Beijing’s official position] on foreign policy issues, and they’re always very extensive, vague, and ‘in support of everything good and against everything bad.’ Don’t expect the peace manifesto to have a serious effect on the war or to give China any kind of new role in this conflict,” he told Meduza.
In Umarov’s view, there are a number of reasons for China not to want to rock the boat when it comes to Russia’s war against Ukraine. If the war can be said to have a biggest beneficiary, he said, it’s China: in addition to the huge energy discounts Moscow has granted Beijing, the war has distracted the U.S. from its ongoing standoff with the country.
So why would Beijing put out a peace plan at all? According to Umarov, the document’s publication is likely a reaction to media reports that China is supplying Russia with dual-use goods and even planning to sell lethal weapons. Even though the war has virtually no downsides for China, he said, Beijing doesn’t want to look like a Russian ally.
“This is a question of image,” he told Meduza. “China doesn’t want to be viewed as a junior partner who follows Moscow’s lead.”
Additionally, Umarov said, posturing as a neutral broker has strategic benefits for China in other areas.
“Beijing wants to delay its inevitable conflict with the U.S. It will be in a much better position if this confrontation happens not right now because of the war with Ukraine but sometime later — in 20–30 years — when China will be much better prepared,” he said.
At the same time, the expert said that reports of plans for China to send Russia 100 strike drones are unsurprising, because regime change in Russia would be a worst-case scenario for Beijing.
“If the Putin regime doesn’t withstand the pressure, so to speak, and really does collapse as a result of the war, that will be a big loss for China, because it will have to build new relations with a new government, while it’s not clear what the political nature of that government will be — and that’s a difficult task,” he said.
Having Putin remain in power as long as possible is a safer bet for China in every way, according to Umarov, because Chinese-Russian relations have been improving for decades and are currently at a high point.
“Russia is currently China’s number-one strategic partner. That doesn’t mean that they agree on every single issue, but it has serious benefits for China — for example, Moscow fully supports Beijing in its confrontation with the U.S., and Russia is China’s biggest asset on that front, both as a nuclear power and as a participant in all major international platforms,” he told Meduza.
Still, Umarov said, that doesn’t mean China’s new peace plan necessarily contains concessions to Russia, though some of its 12 points — namely, an end to “expanding military blocs” and to unilateral sanctions — appear to be just that. In reality, he said, China has itself in mind, not Russia.
“Beijing is behaving very pragmatically and agreeing only with the aspects of the war against Ukraine that benefit itself first and foremost. Beijing is currently in a state of confrontation with the U.S. and under Western sanctions, and that’s where these demands are coming from.”
Likewise, another point in China’s plan, which calls for “respect for the sovereignty of all countries,” is undoubtedly a reference to Beijing’s “One China” principle, according to Umarov.
“The principle of territorial integrity is the basis of China’s foreign policy: no other country can interfere in its affairs and consider Taiwan an independent or otherwise exceptional territory,” he said. “So, this really is primarily about China, not about Ukraine.”
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Indeed, if peace in Ukraine were a Chinese priority, Beijing would likely have made more of an effort to communicate with Kyiv throughout the full-scale war’s first year. But according to Umarov, there’s been “practically no contact” between the two countries.
“Xi hasn’t even spoken to Zelensky on the phone, though that was a regular practice in peacetime,” he said. “Beijing decided to suspend all contact with Kyiv after the start of the war specifically to avoid creating the impression that China was playing on two fronts and supporting Kyiv behind Russia’s back. It likely won’t be resumed until the situation becomes more predictable and it becomes clear where the conflict is headed.” (Volodymyr Zelensky subsequently said in response to China’s peace plan that he wants to meet with Xi Jinping.)
While Moscow’s support is important to China, it’s Russia — the most sanctioned country in history — that needs the partnership most of all. For that reason, Umarov told Meduza, Beijing really does have leverage it could use to pressure Russia to reach some kind of compromise with Ukraine, but it has little incentive to do so.
“If China, for example, imposes sanctions, stops importing natural resources [from Moscow], or pressures Moscow in some other way, what does that give Beijing? The U.S. won’t say, ‘Well, since you did that, we’ll forget all of our structural problems and start viewing you as an ally, as if nothing happened,’” said Umarov. “Of course, that won’t happen. So, China understands that it needs to continue sending double signals, to prepare for confrontation with the U.S., and be glad that Russia is diverting all of the attention onto itself.”
English-language retelling by Sam Breazeale
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