China’s peace proposal may seem a sincere effort to bring a diplomatic end to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but it only serves to reiterate Beijing’s neutrality amid accusations it is providing “lethal support” to Moscow.
In the vaguely-worded 12-point foreign ministry paper released on the first anniversary of the war, China has called for both sides to put down their weapons and begin peace talks, and for Western sanctions against Russia to end.
“The Chinese government has indeed described its paper as a peace proposal, but it will not be seen as such by Ukraine, nor its Nato supporters. I doubt that even the Russians would take it seriously as a peace proposal, as there is nothing concrete in terms of steps to make peace,” said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at SOAS University of London.
China has been walking a tightrope between appearing to stay neutral in the war and maintaining a “no limits friendship” with Russia, but ultimately it does not want to see Moscow fall, argued Rana Mitter, director of the University of Oxford’s China Centre.
For Beijing, the worst outcome would be to see the US emerging as a winner should Russia be defeated. The US has invested more than $46bn (£38bn) in military assistance to Ukraine, nine times more than the UK’s £4.3bn and far exceeding other countries, according to data compiled by the Council on Foreign Relations think-tank.
China is facing off with the US through the Ukraine conflict, which is evident in the proposal, where it condemns a “Cold War mentality”, a term that Beijing often refers to Washington and Nato. To Beijing, the war is a contest between major global powers and it does not want to see the US emerge as an influential player.
The timing of the proposal being made public is notable, given the damage the spy balloon saga has wrought on US-China relations and also the accusation from US Secretary of State Antony Blinken earlier this week that China is considering providing Russia with “lethal support”.
There are suggestions that lethal support may not necessarily be in the form of arms.
“China has not supplied unmistakable weapons or ammunition, but has supplied other items that will not trigger sanctions,” said Professor Tsang.
Reports suggest China is sending highly advanced technological equipment in areas such as surveillance, artificial intelligence and computing to Russia to prop up its military.
“China is keen to balance two issues: making sure that Russia does not collapse but also staying away from secondary sanctions,” said Professor Mitter.
“That means it will remain cautious about supplying arms to Russia, and the US warning is meant to prevent China from taking any further steps in that direction.”
How realistic is a peace deal?
In the first weeks of the conflict, officials from both warring parties sat down for peace talks, and it seemed at the time that a deal was within reach after Ukraine indicated it was open to Russia’s demand for neutrality and compromise over disputed territory, particularly in the eastern Donbas region.
Since then, those negotiations were regularly interrupted by both sides opting to try and fight their way to the end, and any prospect of a peace deal has all but disappeared.
“At the moment, both sides still think they can win outright. In that case, not settling is the better alternative to not settling, whatever the sacrifices,” said Marc Weller, a former UN senior mediation expert who has served as an adviser in peace negotiations including in Kosovo, Syria, Yemen and Russian-occupied Transnistria.
“Unless there is a decisive military development, the present situation that either side still thinks that it can win will continue for a while.
“At some stage they have to realise that there is a stalemate and it costs them too much to keep that stalemate in place and then they might negotiate. We are not there yet, and that seems to be some time off.”
Further complicating matters is Russia’s annexation of four Ukrainian territories in September, which has made it “virtually impossible” to recapture the opportunity to negotiate a settlement, Professor Weller, who now teaches international law at the University of Cambridge, added.
Could there be a ceasefire?
A ceasefire now, one year after the war began, could work in Russia’s favour. Moscow had already announced a ceasefire over Christmas, with Kyiv condemning it as a ruse for the Russians to be able to replenish its military stocks.
Military analysts agree that Russia is planning a spring offensive in order to seize territory in eastern Ukraine, if it achieves those objectives then a ceasefire could mean holding onto those gains, all while painting Ukraine as the aggressor if it refuses to accept.
“The cleverest thing the Russians could do would be to take now, in this offensive, as much territory as they can and then say that’s it, the conflict has ended, you (Ukraine) are the unreasonable party by keeping fighting, we declare a ceasefire,” said Professor Weller.
“And that could be reinforced by those who try to help broker an agreement.”
Before China put itself forward on Friday as a potential mediator in the conflict, Turkey had already assigned itself that role. Ankara was heavily involved in last year’s peace negotiations and helped broker the successful Black Sea grain deal.
For a settlement, Turkey has advocated for a two-stage process that consists of a ceasefire and then negotiations for a deal, but that approach “is very dangerous for the Ukrainians”, argued Professor Weller.
He suggested that for negotiations to work there would need to be a further element of impetus, such as the UN joining with Turkey in managing the mediation, or for supervision by an international contact group consisting of neutral actors – including China.
Like Turkey, China has maintained a channel for communication with both Russia and Ukraine, according to Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Mao Ning.
With China and Turkey wanting to see themselves as a greater global power, pulling off a deal would greatly enhance their prestige.
But there are no signs of that being achieved any time soon.
“Both Russia and Ukraine will need to come to the view that, in the end, diplomacy is the only tool available to them once the military option has been exhausted, sadly we are not there yet,” Professor Weller said.