Ukraine, 1 year on: China’s peace plan is not a plan

A year after the renewed Russian invasion of Ukraine, China has come forward with a 12-point statement of its position on the political settlement of the Ukraine crisis. That, at least, is what is called by both the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and

It is widely reported in the international news media as a peace plan. See, among others, AlJazeera, AP, BBC, CNN, DWGuardian, New York Times, Reuters, SkyTime (though it calls it a proposal).

But it is not a plan and China does not say it’s a plan – it’s a position according to the government and to CGTN, Beijing’s state-run English-language news channel (though, to be fair, CGTN joined the crowd and called it a plan on the second day of coverage). Further, it does not outline either what a peace settlement could consist of or a pathway for getting there. It is a statement of opinion that stays away from specifics about what its support for dialogue and negotiation could mean in practice.

And I think that in ramping up a statement of position into a peace plan that can then be criticised for lacking specifics, the news media are missing something.

China’s position

China’s statement of its position is significant first because of what it does and doesn’t say.

What it does say:

  • It starts with “respecting the sovereignty of all countries” (remind me: who didn’t do that one year ago?).
  • It comments on how security should not be achieved:
    • “The security of a country should not be pursued at the expense of others.”
    • “The security of a region should not be achieved by strengthening or expanding military blocs.”
    • “The legitimate security interests and concerns of all countries must be taken seriously”.
  • It asks everybody to support Russia and Ukraine getting into dialogue “so as to gradually deescalate the situation and ultimately reach a comprehensive ceasefire.”
  • It points out that, “Conflict and war benefit no one” and supports the resumption of last year’s peace talks, promising a constructive approach from China (this is the closest the statement gets to offering to mediate or negotiate a plan with Russia and Ukraine, the proposition US President Biden has said is not rational).
  • The next five points focus on
    • resolving the humanitarian crisis;
    • protecting civilians and prisoners of war;
    • keeping war away from nuclear power plants;
    • “Reducing strategic risks. Nuclear weapons must not be used and nuclear wars must not be fought. The threat or use of nuclear weapons should be opposed.”
    • Facilitating grain exports.
  • It states China’s opposition to “unilateral sanctions unauthorized by the UN Security Council.”
  • It emphasises the need to “maintain the existing world economic system”, calling for stability in supply chains and “joint efforts … to mitigate the spillovers of the crisis”.
  • It calls for international cooperation on post-conflict reconstruction and says China “stands ready” to help.

What it does not say:

  • There is no mention of arms supplies and other military and financial support that the USA and its allies are providing for Ukraine and, thus, no statement of opposition to them.

Overall, if read in a straightforward manner in the light of the past year’s events, the USA and allies are criticised for NATO’s enlargement and sanctions against Russia.

Meanwhile Russia is implicitly but unmistakeably criticised for breaching Ukraine’s national sovereignty, pursuing its own security at the expense of another country, not taking Ukraine’s security interests and concerns seriously, starting a war that, by definition, benefits no one, attacking civilian targets, fighting close to nuclear facilities, and making threats about using nuclear weapons.

While the statement calls for a ceasefire, this is seen as the eventual outcome of a gradual process of de-escalation, not an immediate standstill in current tactical positions on the ground.

That is an interesting and nuanced set of views on the war. It is a long way from being a clarion call of solidarity with Russia. It doesn’t try to be a plan. There is, as President Zelensky of Ukraine is reported to have said, some things to agree with and some things not to.

Resonance with Munich

The second way in which I find the statement interesting is because of its resonance with quite a lot of what I heard at the Munich Security Conference last weekend. Opinions will differ but comparing the Chinese position with the broad lines of discussion at Munich, there is surprisingly little distance. That, I think, is because, in the analysis of the current situation, the starting points are not far removed from each other.

At Munich, as you would expect from the Euro-Atlantic region’s foremost gathering of makers and shakers in the field of security policy, the war in Ukraine was the big focus.  The annual Ewald von Kleist award (named after the founder of the MSC’s forerunner) went to Finland and Sweden for having applied to join NATO. Zelensky joined by video-link (last year he attended in person, just a few days before the invasion). 

Away from the main stage, there were plenty of meetings, side events and brush-by’s in the bar or coffee room where other geographies (including at least the Middle East and North Africa, Northeast Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Indo-Pacific) and other themes (not least the impact of climate change on insecurity and the impact of war in Ukraine on food security worldwide) were also in focus. But on the main stage, the big hitters’ speeches all focused on Ukraine, Russia, the West and NATO.

Protracted war

From just about everybody who knows much or had been briefed and had remarks written for them by people who know much, there came a steady drumbeat on the need to prepare for a protracted war in Ukraine. That is hardly surprising.

If you look at what has happened in the last five months, you see how Russian offensives have been using what can only be called meat-grinder tactics, dropping large numbers of people with little and sometimes virtually no combat training into combat, trying to overwhelm Ukrainian positions with the pressure of pure numbers. They have made some progress, slow and at high human cost. In other areas they have reinforced their lines of defence, making it very difficult for Ukrainian forces to break through, even when 300 tanks arrive, which will not happen in full before 2024.

Surprises cannot be ruled out, of course, but on the evidence of the past several months, it is understandable why many expect a protracted war. 

If this speculation is right, it is bad news, not only for Ukrainians but also for a large part of the world population because it will mean that food prices remain high and shortages acute.

The figures for food insecurity today are appalling. Debatably (depending on the statistical methodologies used, the degree of estimation and the extent of modelling rather than counting), between about 220 million and 345 million people do not know where their next meal is coming from. That is either double or treble what the figures were before the pandemic. They had been getting worse since 2016 because of armed conflicts around the world and the impact of climate change. They got worse again because of the pandemic. And now the war in Ukraine. The figures are quite likely to get worse.

Is peace possible?

I stand by my earlier assertion that peace in Ukraine is, of course, possible. All that is needed is for President Putin to decide to withdraw Russian forces. There is, equally of course, no likelihood of that happening any time soon if ever. Nor will Ukraine stop fighting after the losses it has suffered, the successes it has had, and with the aid it is receiving. 

This, I think, is the starting point for both China’s position and the general arguments advanced by security policy makers and shakers at Munich.

There is a dilemma. Victory for either side does not seem likely this year and perhaps not in 2024 either.  Wars that do not end in victory either end in negotiated agreement, which is how most war termination has occurred for the past half century, or they drag on. But in Ukraine, a negotiated agreement looks at least as unlikely as a clear victory. The positions of the two sides are far apart. President Putin continues to deny the legitimacy of the government of Ukraine. President Zelensky makes it clear he does not trust his Russian counterpart at any level. 

In the long run, co-existence will be necessary – between Ukraine and Russia plus Belarus, between Europe as a whole and Russia plus Belarus. Reconciliation is improbably but co-existence will be necessary. But in the short-to-middle term – that’s where the question mark is, the uncertainty.

How to get from here to there: that is what everybody is puzzling about.

Dissonance with Munich

Munich also heard a lot of thinking about the world order. The Chinese foreign minister was there, speaking in friendly tones to Europe and knocking the USA. After Munich, he went to Moscow. The question was widely asked, whether we are facing a new Cold War, the USA and its allies (the wider West) on one side, with China and Russia and other allies opposed, making a simple dyad.

I think not. Seeing the world in two camps is too simplistic. It misinterprets how both Chinese and Russian leaders see their respective interests, which are much less closely aligned than many western commentators seem to think. And it over-states the degree of alignment in the West: over Ukraine, there is a great deal of unity, while about recovery from economic woes, there is not – and who knows how unity over Ukraine will look after the November 2024 US Presidential elections? 

Further misconceptions come as leaders and pundits in the West expect other countries’ leaders and pundits to align with them, to see the world the way the collective West sees it. 

There are elements of the current world situation – not least in the renewed difficulty of getting action on key issues from the UN Security Council – that are reminiscent of the Cold War era. But that is not the same as saying that we are in a new Cold War. At present, China and the USA and its allies are much more economically enmeshed than the Soviet bloc and the West were during the 40-plus years of the Cold War. 

History is not in loop-mode and if we can free ourselves from thinking in an outdated frame, perhaps we can get on with addressing real world problems

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