Editor’s note: On 24 February 2023, China’s foreign ministry released a 12-point document calling for peace talks and outlining what it called “China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis,” including a statement that nuclear weapons must not be used. However, the document did not acknowledge that Russia had invaded Ukraine or call for the withdrawal of Russian troops. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said the principles outlined in the document would be examined, but that they must be understood “against the backdrop that China has taken sides.”
Twenty-four hours after Vladimir Putin launched his full invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, he received a phone call from Xi Jinping. The Chinese leader wasn’t calling to condemn the Russian invasion. Instead, Xi thanked Putin for attending the opening ceremony of the Beijing Winter Olympics that month and told him that “China supports Russia in resolving the issue through negotiation with Ukraine”.
This triggered hopeful headlines that Putin had told Xi he was “ready to talk with Ukraine” and the first of what would be repeated suggestions over the months that followed that China might use its relationship with Russia as leverage to broker peace. “We can’t be the mediators, that is clear,” said Josep Borrell, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, in March 2022. “It has to be China.” That same month, Wang Huiyao, who leads a Beijing-based think tank and has advised the Chinese government, told me that China was uniquely positioned to play an intermediary role and floated the possibility of five- or six-party talks involving the members of the UN Security Council and Ukraine to negotiate peace.
Yet Beijing did nothing of the sort. Instead, Chinese diplomats adopted the pretence of neutrality, urging “all sides” to exercise restraint, while ignoring the fact that Russia had invaded Ukraine, which was fighting for its survival. At the same time, China provided Russia with an economic lifeline that has enabled it to keep fighting, buying Russian oil in record quantities and supplying advanced technology such as semiconductors that can be suitable for military use. On 19 February this year Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, warned that China was also considering providing military aid to Russia.
So there is reason to be sceptical of the claim that China is preparing to unveil a “peace plan” for Ukraine to mark the war’s first anniversary. The details so far are vague but Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat, announced at the Munich Security Conference on 18 February that Beijing was preparing to present a peace initiative, and Qin Gang, the Chinese foreign minister, said on 21 February that his country was ready to “provide Chinese wisdom for the political settlement of the Ukraine crisis”. (Chinese officials still refuse to call it a war.) Xi is expected to deliver a “peace speech” on 24 February.
There is no doubt that Xi would prefer that the war end. The conflict has driven up global food and energy prices at a time when China’s economic growth was already slowing. It has reinvigorated western alliances such as Nato, which last year identified China as a “systemic challenge” for the first time. Russia’s war has also focused US attention on bolstering Taiwan’s defences and galvanised Japan’s rearmament. But this does not mean that Beijing wants to stop the fighting at any cost, especially on terms that amount to a Russian defeat.
Despite the economic, political and humanitarian considerations, China views Russia above all else as a crucial partner in its contest with the US. If Russia suffers a humiliating defeat in Ukraine, perhaps even threatening Putin’s hold on power, Beijing fears that the US and its allies will then turn their full attention to containing China, preventing the country’s continued rise. The collapse of Putin’s regime would risk a new pro-western, or at least less overtly anti-western, government taking over in Moscow and controlling the territory on the other side of the more than 4,000km-long Sino-Russian border.
The best outcome for China would be a halt to the fighting that leaves Putin firmly in control and preserves Russia’s status as a global power. Beijing is unlikely to fret over the consequences for Ukraine’s territorial integrity (despite this supposedly being one of China’s most important principles) and for the Ukrainian citizens forced to live under Russian occupation, never mind any prospect of holding Putin to account.
In fact, China’s actions over the last 12 months suggest that Putin’s war and the atrocities his soldiers have perpetrated against Ukrainian civilians have barely altered Beijing’s strategic assessment. The same factors that drove Xi and Putin to declare their “no limits” partnership in early February 2022 remain in place, although of course the relationship was never as unlimited as the two leaders professed. China and Russia have continued to hold joint military exercises. Bilateral trade has reached an all-time high. As Feng Yujun, one of China’s top Russia analysts, summed up the situation earlier this year, “China-Russia relations are running smoothly” and had been “basically unaffected” by the events of the past year.
Welcoming Wang Yi to Moscow on 22 February, Putin enthusiastically declared that Sino-Russian relations were “reaching new frontiers” and confirmed reports that Xi is expected to visit Russia in the spring. For his part, Wang assured Putin that their relationship would not “succumb to pressure from third parties” – seemingly a reference to the US – and said that “together we support multi-polarity and democratisation in international relations”, which was hard to reconcile with the reality that Russia is trying to subjugate a democratic state. It was a powerful reminder, if one were needed, that for all its pseudo-neutrality, Beijing has chosen its side in this war. Any proposals for peace that might follow must be understood in this context.