China Watch: Ukraine Peace Proposal Unlikely To Gain Traction

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China’s 24 February proposal for ending the Ukraine war is overtly pro-Russia and was drafted without consulting Ukraine, suggesting Beijing is not serious about brokering peace.  Beijing is likely using the proposal to deflect international criticism for supporting Russia, portray itself as a leader of the Global South, and help Russia buy time to avoid a humiliating defeat. 

  • Beijing wants to show that it is playing a constructive role in ending the war and that the West is to blame by supplying arms to Ukraine.  Beijing is concerned about future Western sanctions on Chinese companies for providing support to the Russian military.
  • China seeks to appeal to the Global South, which has been more reluctant to isolate Russia compared with the West.[1]  32 countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America abstained from voting on a UN resolution on 23 February calling on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine.  These countries include China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, and South Africa.
  • Beijing is concerned that Russia will lose the war, which would tilt the balance of power in favor of the West and might embolden the US and its allies to support Taiwan in a potential cross-Start conflict.  Beijing is looking for a negotiated settlement to avoid a total defeat for Russia.

Russia and Belarus praised Beijing’s proposal.  Belarus’ President Aleksandr Lukashenko is scheduled to visit China this week, and he is expected to discuss the proposal with Xi.  Ukraine has given it qualified support, with President Volodymyr Zelensky saying he would like to speak to Xi about the proposal but emphasizing that any solution should require a complete Russian withdrawal from Ukrainian territory.  China has stopped short of calling for a Russian withdrawal.  Beijing has not confirmed Putin’s statement that Xi will visit Moscow in the spring, suggesting that Putin is more eager for a bilateral summit than Xi.  Prior to the release of the proposal, Western media outlets reported that Xi would deliver a speech regarding the peace proposal, but he did not do so.  PRC state media gave the proposal a low-profile treatment, instead focusing on Xi’s meeting with Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni and comments urging citizens to show more ideological zeal.

[1] A University of Cambridge study released in October 2022 found that the Ukraine war has hardened the divide between the Global North and South regarding international politics, with the West and other wealthy liberal democracies drawing closer to the United States while autocratic societies showed more support for Russia and China.