In recent days, the leaders of the three major countries have presented what could be called a short-term strategic vision upon which the course of international relations will be shaped this coming spring. A few days after the Munich Security Conference was held, President Putin delivered his first annual address since the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, in which he stressed that Russia will not accept defeat in Ukraine and that the time for accepting US dictates to the world is gone forever, with the suspension of the New START treaty to limit the proliferation of strategic weapons.
For his part, the American president responded to the Russian address with a surprise visit to the capital city of Kyiv, followed by a speech in Warsaw in which he publicly mentioned President Putin’s name ten times, calling him a dictator who dreams of building an empire that the US will not allow, and assuring that the US will defend democracy against expansionist dictatorial regimes. Amid this mutual escalation between Moscow and Washington, China released a new initiative affirming Beijing’s fervent desire for the war to end, while also indicating a third political path ("third way") that China seeks to forge amid an international order that resembles the environment before the first and second world wars.
During his participation in the Munich Security Conference (held February 17-19), Wang Yi revealed Beijing’s intention to present a proposal to end the ongoing war in Ukraine. This announcement is the first of its kind from China since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine war, and it also coincides with the first anniversary of the conflict. The Chinese official did not clarify any details of this initiative, but he stated that his country will not stand idly by and will present a political settlement to support peace and constructive dialogue. Wang Yi also announced that he would go to Moscow after the conclusion of the Munich meeting to speak with the Russians about this document.
The Chinese minister also indicated that this initiative will be based on principles previously established by the Chinese president and in accordance with the UN Charter, which affirms the territorial integrity and sovereignty of all countries. At the same time, he stressed respect for Russia’s legitimate security interests.
A few days after these statements, on February 24, Beijing released a document entitled, "China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis." The paper consists of 12 points formulated as general principles, along the lines of binding the various parties against resorting to nuclear weapons and targeting civilians and civilian facilities, and for respecting state sovereignty, abandoning the Cold War mentality, stopping unilateral sanctions, and preserving the stability of supply chains.
China’s moves in this regard elicited the following mixed international reactions:
1. Russian welcome of Beijing’s moves: Moscow expressed a positive stance toward China’s moves in the Ukraine conflict. After the release of the Chinese initiative on February 24, the Russian foreign ministry issued a statement saying, "We share Beijing’s settlement proposal and are committed to respecting the UN Charter, international and humanitarian law, and comprehensive security, in a way that does not promote the security of one country at the expense of another, or one group of countries over another." The statement added that "along with China, we view any restrictions imposed outside the scope of the UN Security Council as illegitimate and a tool of unequal competition and economic warfare." The Russian foreign ministry stressed that "Moscow is open to achieving the goals of its military operation through political and diplomatic means." The statement also emphasized the need for Kyiv to recognize the "new facts regarding Ukrainian territory" whose annexation Moscow has declared.
2. Conditional European reaction to the Chinese initiative: While some European countries welcomed the Chinese initiative, the welcome was conditional. For example, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said that China, as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, is obliged to use its influence to ensure global peace. Although she stated the need to seize every opportunity to achieve peace, she also emphasized the need to achieve a just peace that requires the "violator of territorial integrity—meaning Russia—to withdraw its forces from the occupied country," and that "without full withdrawal of all Russian troops from Ukraine, there is no chance of ending the war." Baerbock also warned that "Germany will not accept the Chinese proposal if it includes the suspension of Western weapons supplies to Ukraine," saying that "the war will end if Russian stops fighting."
Likewise, in remarks made on February 24, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier questioned the Chinese initiative, saying: "Any constructive proposal that would lead to a just peace will be welcomed, but it is doubtful that peace according to the Chinese proposals would play such a constructive role. This remains subject to question. That being the case, Beijing must dialogue not only with Moscow but also with Kyiv." The German president also expressed his belief that it is not incumbent upon the West to join the Chinese peace initiative, but upon China to join "the vast majority of countries" under UN auspices.
Meanwhile, EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stated that China is still obliged to provide further evidence that it is not working in Russia’s favor. However, at the same time, she stressed that the European continent is somewhat reassured that China is not a party to this war.
3. Washington’s skepticism of Beijing’s objectives: The Chinese initiative has met with American skepticism. US Vice President Kamala Harris expressed her concern about China’s deepening relationship with Russia since the start of the war, noting that any step given to Russia would only reward Moscow for continuing its military operations, thus complicating the situation. And US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said that Beijing is considering the possibility of supplying Russia with weapons to enhance its attack capabilities in preparation for the decisive battle this March.
After the release of the Chinese initiative on February 24, US President Joe Biden called it "not rational," noting that "[Russian President Vladimir] Putin’s applauding it, so how could it be any good?" Biden added: "I’ve seen nothing in the plan that would indicate that there is something that would be beneficial to anyone other than Russia."
4. Mostly negative Western media coverage of the initiative: In the media, international newspapers and magazines devoted paragraphs and entire pages to discussing this first-of-its-kind Chinese initiative. However, most of the responses were of a negative nature and called into question China’s intentions. For example, the British newspaper, The Guardian, commented on the news by saying that Beijing’s goal regarding this initiative, and the final form it would take, are unclear. It also questioned whether the plan would be limited to establishing some broad lines that promote peace as a slogan—like the usual Chinese diplomacy—without identifying the specific mechanisms and steps that would be followed to achieve this hoped-for peace.
Some media platforms noted that, a year after entering into an unlimited partnership with Russia, China will have difficulty convincing the world that it is a neutral player that can help end the war in Ukraine. Some stated that the Chinese initiative may be a plan to delay the war for a while, so that Russia can reconsolidate its position and weapons and restore the stature of its military might in order to attack Ukrainian territory anew.
5. Cautious Ukrainian response to the Chinese initiative: In press statements made on February 24th, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that he would discuss the initiative with the Chinese president: "I intend to meet Xi Jinping. That would be important for global security. China respects territorial integrity, and it must do everything possible to ensure Russia’s departure from Ukrainian territory." Zelenskyy added that he wants "to believe that China will be on the side of a just world, meaning on our side."
For his part, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba categorically rejected any loss of Ukrainian territory in exchange for peace with Russia. On the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, Kuleba stated that it is in Ukraine’s interest that China play a role in achieving peace between Kyiv and Moscow, but the issue of Ukrainian territorial integrity is non-negotiable.
In a press conference in Beijing on February 21, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi explained that his country is "very concerned" about the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, which is "worsening and getting out of control," and he indicated that Beijing would work to "promote peace talks." In this context, it can be said that the Chinese peace initiative in Ukraine is driven by several key incentives, including the following:
1. Undermining US accusations that Beijing is arming Russia: Over the past months, Western reports have accused Beijing of supporting Russia in the war. However, in February of this year, those reports turned into official accusations from Washington. On the American CBS News Network, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken noted that China is considering giving Russia weapons and ammunition to continue its war in Ukraine. He added that "Chinese companies are already providing non-lethal support to Russia," and "new information indicates that Beijing may provide lethal support."
These American accusations are one of the fundamental drivers of the Chinese initiative, especially since Beijing has more than once rejected such US accusations. Wang Wenbin, the spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, even said at a press conference, on February 22, that Beijing is not sending weapons: "[The United States and other NATO countries] keep claiming that China may be supplying weapons to Russia. This is a familiar trick used and exposed soon after the Ukraine crisis broke out." Wenbin described the US and other NATO countries as "the biggest source of weaponry for the battlefield in Ukraine."
2. De-escalating tensions with Western countries: Through its move with regard to Ukraine, Beijing appears to be trying to decrease the recent escalating tensions with Western countries, amid the incident of the Chinese spy balloon that was shot down by the US. Several European countries have also accused China of spying against them. For example, Germany has accused China of "political espionage," with the president of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency, Thomas Haldenwang, stating his concern over China’s expanding espionage activities against Berlin. Haldenwang warned of China’s development of wide-scale espionage and influence activities, calling for preparation to increase these activities in the coming years.
3. Sending direct messages regarding Taiwan: The Chinese initiative regarding the Ukraine conflict may carry a message that Beijing will not use military force against Taiwan as promoted by Western nations. At the Munich Security Conference, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi scoffed at the comparison between the current situation in Ukraine and Taiwan’s near future, and he urged countries to stop raising global concern about the fate of Taiwan and pushing the slogan, "Ukraine today, Taiwan tomorrow."
4. Building a new Chinese world order and supporting Beijing’s image: China’s venture through this initiative could also be explained by its attempt to establish the global rules for peace and to protect the strength of the international order focused on the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, thereby explicitly referring to its arch-rival, the US, as primarily responsible for disrupting world peace and stability.
In this context, during his regular press briefing to comment on the Munich Security Conference, Wang Wenbin, the spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said that "China always tries to defend and maintain the international order, as evident in its serious attempts to support the peace process between Ukraine and Russia." On the other hand, "the US abuses its political and military hegemony with wanton use of force, as occurred during the wars and military operations launched by the US in the name of fighting terrorism in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq, which took the lives of 900,000 people and created 37 million global refugees." Wenbin continued his briefing by saying that Washington abuses its economic hegemony and its control over international economic and financial organizations through the deliberate suppression of its opponents by coercion and doubling down on unilateral sanctions.
5. Confronting the economic repercussions of the Ukraine war: The initiative implies Chinese recognition that the continuation of the war is not in its interests, especially given the global economic repercussions of the war, which negatively impact China’s economy and interests. The war has had some economic ramifications for China, particularly since Beijing relies heavily on Russia and Ukraine for certain strategic products, such as grain, iron ore, and energy. Thus, shortly after the outbreak of the war last year, media reports noted that the Chinese leadership had instructed the National Development and Reform Commission to encourage state-owned companies to seek alternative sources for imports of grain, iron ore, and energy, to compensate for potential shortfalls in supplies from Russia and Ukraine.
The war has also had indirect effects on China’s economy, as seen in the rising prices of raw materials for Chinese companies, which increases inflationary pressure on the economy. The war and the resulting turmoil in the global stock market has led to volatility in China’s stock market. Overall, the Ukraine war, China’s trade and technology war with the US, and the domestic COVID lockdowns were the three main factors impeding Chinese economic growth this year, and they may have far-reaching consequences for employment and social stability.
6. Beijing’s fear of Russian defeat: At the first anniversary of the Ukraine war, the scene has become more complicated. At the beginning of the military operation, it was thought that Russia would win the war, but it was not successful, and the West began to accelerate and multiply its military assistance to Kyiv. This Russian-Western entanglement in Ukraine made Russian defeat a potential scenario in the war. Naturally, this scenario represents a major concern for Beijing because Moscow is an important Chinese ally against the West.
In an interview on the American NBC channel on February 19, the famous author, Thomas Friedman, expressed Chinese fears, saying, "I think China, first of all, they would like the war prolonged because it keeps us tied down, and we’re burning through all our weaponry and all our military stocks. I think also, they like a weak Russia that’s forced to be economically dependent on them, but they don’t want a collapsed Russia." Friedman added, "That’s a very bad signal for Taiwan, that the West could take Russia down. So, I think the Chinese might be concerned about that. Then this becomes a true world war, it affects every global market."
Consistent with this, the recent Chinese initiative regarding settlement of the Ukraine conflict may be an attempt by Beijing to de-escalate the course of the war and give the Russian regime a chance to catch its breath and lessen the pressure on it, especially since the Western countries are insistent on arming Kyiv with specific weapons.
Chances of Success
Various economic and security indicators reveal that Europe is most affected by the consequences of this war, especially with regard to the natural gas crisis and inflation. Thus, Europe supports any initiative that would end the current war in Ukraine. The worsening of these crises is pushing the leaders of European nations to find an alternative solution, relatively separate from the US umbrella. The German chancellor’s visit to China last November, and France’s announcement of President Macron’s upcoming visit to Beijing, have confirmed this approach.
On the other hand, the strategic partnership between China and Russia grew in 2022, and China is expected to have the necessary tools to influence the political leadership in Moscow. Nevertheless, the absence of successful precedents for Chinese diplomacy in the area of international mediation to end long-lasting conflicts and wars, and each party’s categorical refusal to concede any of its demands, which is the main driver of the war, weaken the chances of the Chinese initiative’s success. Hope remains tied to the US position on this initiative, the degree to which Washington is convinced of China’s intentions to seek peace, and the impact on Putin to accept Western demands.