Wang Huiyao: As Ukraine war drags on, why not give China’s peace plan a chance?

SCMP | March 08 , 2023

From SCMP, 2023-3-7

■ Suspicious of Beijing’s motives, the West has dismissed the plan for having no actionable solutions.

■ But with leverage over Moscow and skin in the game, there is no other country better placed to mediate.


Illustration: Craig Stephens


By Wang Huiyao | Founder of the Center for China and Globalization(CCG)


There are basically two ways that wars end: in an outright victory or with a negotiated settlement. After a year of fighting in Ukraine, there is a growing consensus that neither side can secure a total victory any time soon.

Russia appears to lack the capability to overcome Ukraine while Western support continues. But Russian forces have dug in and it looks increasingly unlikely that Ukraine can eject them, even with better kit from the West.

Russian President Vladimir Putin will not give up – he sees defeat as an existential threat and has the resources to fight a prolonged war of attrition. And there remains the nightmarish possibility he could reach for the nuclear option if backed into a corner.

Meanwhile, sanctions have not crippled the Russian economy, and there is no sign of a serious effort to topple Putin. Any putsch is more likely to come from the ultranationalist right, and unlikely to end the fighting.

The longer the war drags on, the more suffering it causes. Odds are, we will be marking another grim anniversary next year – and who knows how many after that. Countless people will be killed, wounded or made homeless. Disrupted flows of grain and energy will worsen hunger in vulnerable regions and aggravate global inflation, feeding instability.

If neither side can prevail, the only way the bloodshed can end is at the negotiating table. Granted, that too seems unlikely – but not impossible.

The peace plan issued by China two weeks ago was immediately dismissed by the European Union and the United States – but, importantly, not by Russia or Ukraine. The United Nations called the plan an “important contribution” and while it is by no means perfect, it is the only option on the table.

With no end to the war in sight, the plan deserves proper consideration – if only as a stepping stone to a ceasefire and seven-party peace talks under the UN, to include the five permanent Security Council members, Ukraine and the EU.

There are two main criticisms in the West of Beijing’s proposal. But neither is sufficient to dismiss it out of hand.

The first is that the paper doesn’t offer actionable solutions. Indeed, it is largely a reiteration of principles and leaves crucial issues unaddressed. But it should be taken as a starting point. There is no way China – or any other party – can provide ready-made answers. Specifics must be thrashed out through negotiations between the key players.

The second, more serious objection is that many in the West do not see Beijing as a credible mediator. From the start of the war, Beijing has straddled an awkward position on Ukraine. Its refusal to condemn Moscow’s invasion means many in the West view China’s stance as “pro-Russian neutrality”.

But it should be recognised that China has been cautious to avoid crossing the line on Western sanctions. China has provided humanitarian support to Ukraine, but there is no evidence it has supplied arms to Russia.

China’s refusal to join the campaign against Moscow may not sit well in the West, but it remains the majority stance elsewhere. More importantly, it is precisely this reluctance to intervene that puts Beijing in a unique position to help mediate.

Many are suspicious of Beijing’s motives for stepping in now. There is no doubt China has much to gain if it can help broker an end to the war.

International trade has been hit; and China is the biggest trading nation and the largest trading partner of both Russia and Ukraine. Fighting has also disrupted a key corridor of the Belt and Road Initiative and overland trade with Europe, while driving volatility in global markets that hurts China as a major importer of energy and grain.

Strategically, playing mediator will help China enhance its image, especially in the Global South, and preserve its strategic partner Russia, while ending a conflict that is damaging relations with the West. Brokering peace may not diminish competition with the US, but would surely help Beijing repair relations with the EU and peel the bloc away from Washington.

Cynical motivations aside, China remains best-placed to mediate – and the only one with significant leverage over Moscow. Beijing’s skin in the game only raises the chance of success; mediation does not have to be an act of altruism to work.

US President Joe Biden said the idea of China helping to negotiate a peace is “just not rational”. But it seems to me the objection is driven more by emotion and moral outrage.

Beijing’s self-interest and failure to take a stance against Russia do not negate the fact that peace would benefit everyone and let us focus on our other manifold challenges. The West would be cutting off its nose to spite its face if it dismisses a potential path to peace just because it came from China.

Also, if Beijing is serious about brokering peace, it must address the doubts over its willingness and ability to mediate fairly. For example, China’s leadership has been in contact with Putin since the crisis began but has yet to speak to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky. After the plan was released, Zelensky said he planned to talk to President Xi Jinping. Making this happen would be a good start.

Securing a multilateral resolution to the crisis in Ukraine is a long shot. China will have to stick its neck out further than it has ever been willing to, for there to be any chance of success. But there is no country better placed to do so. The West should give it a chance.


From SCMP, 2023-3-7