With its 12-point plan to end the war in Ukraine, China has taken a significant step toward center stage in international politics. In the past, it has avoided the risks and responsibilities that come with a leadership role on foreign policy questions that aren’t directly relevant to China’s national security. Now that Xi Jinping has consolidated vast power at home, he’s ready to assert his country’s influence in new ways. Yet, direct intervention in Russia’s war on Ukraine is fraught with risk for China, its relations with America and Europe, and the entire global economy.
What’s in China’s peace plan? Despite Western suspicions the proposal is designed mainly to help Russia, it calls for formal respect for Ukraine’s sovereignty, protections for Ukrainian civilians, an end to interference with the flow of humanitarian aid into the country, and condemnation of the possible use of nuclear weapons. The plan also reflects the views of those around the world whose primary interest in the war is economic, by calling for a ceasefire, an end to sanctions, and the opening of peace talks that might help ease pressure on food and fuel prices.
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Though Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky pledged to consider the plan, it has no chance of moving forward, because it does not require Russia’s invading army to leave Ukraine, does not promise a return of Ukrainian land now illegally occupied by Russian forces, and provides nothing tangible for reconstruction of the country. An immediate ceasefire would freeze Russian gains in place, forcing Ukraine to try to persuade Vladimir Putin to voluntarily give back land. In truth, no peace plan is likely to succeed at this stage of the war because neither the Russian nor Ukrainian governments can afford to lose.
In addition, though Beijing has rejected the charge, Western governments continue to warn that China may still be thinking of providing weapons for Russia. Direct accusations from senior U.S. officials that China is considering the idea make clear that Washington is watching closely and that serious consequences will come if China presses ahead. For that reason, Beijing is unlikely to send Russia weapons or ammunition, but it surely hopes the threat alone will move NATO to push Ukraine to the negotiating table.
So, what else does China hope its plan can achieve? It can promote China as a global problem-solver and peacemaker with a blueprint most of the world can support. Though developing countries in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East question Putin’s motives, they see themselves more directly damaged by Western determination to make this war the most urgent priority in a world suffering from global crises like slow economic recovery from the pandemic, food and fuel inflation, unsustainable developing world debt, refugees, and climate change.
China’s peace plan implicitly presents the U.S. as a warmonger and NATO as the tool it uses to make an awful war last longer and cost more. It also allows Xi to interact with Putin—and even to visit Moscow in coming months—as a mediator rather than as an ally of the man who ordered the invasion. China may also be hoping to drive political wedges within America and Europe by creating an “off-ramp” for those on both sides of the Atlantic who question the wisdom of open-ended support for Ukraine.
Make no mistake; China is playing a dangerous game. Any provision of weapons to Russia would instantly make an already fractious U.S.-China relationship much worse. The aftershocks from that quake would be felt around the world. But even if China continues to limit its involvement to the role of Kremlin apologist and gadfly would-be peacemaker, the impact on tensions between America and China may help ensure the war in Ukraine continues to expand in ways no one can control.
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