Jennifer Welsh is a professor of global governance and security at McGill University, where she directs the Centre for International Peace and Security Studies.
The events marking the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine included fiery speeches from the two main opponents, Vladimir Putin and Volodymyr Zelensky, as well as Ukraine’s strongest Western supporter, Joe Biden. Yet diplomatic attention was also focused on China – a potent reminder that as the newest global superpower, it too is a crucial player in this unfolding conflict.
It was Chinese President Xi Jinping who, during the 2022 Olympics last February, famously gave his Russian counterpart the green light for his “special military operation.” And over the past 12 months, while claiming neutrality, China has continued (and in some cases deepened) its trade relationship with Russia, refrained from condemning Mr. Putin’s invasion and used its power to block some multilateral efforts to sanction or punish Moscow.
There were two questions about China circulating last week. First, would it ramp up its assistance to Russia, as part of its “no limits” friendship, to include lethal aid? And second, would it force the West into a serious discussion about peace negotiation through its promise of a plan for a “political settlement” to the conflict?
While the week started with rumours swirling about possible moves by China to offer military assistance to Moscow – and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s stark warnings to Beijing against such a move – it ended with U.S. national security adviser Jake Sullivan declaring that Washington had yet to see hard evidence of Chinese delivery of lethal equipment, and with Ukraine’s President issuing a strong plea to keep it that way.
As most Western analysts agree, taking this step could ultimately undermine China’s interests, as it would further damage its relationship with Europe – a vital economic partner – and implicate it directly in Moscow’s actions. It would also run counter to the image Beijing seeks to portray to a significant constituency in the Global South, which seeks a rapid end to the war and greater attention paid to the food insecurity and economic crisis that has unfolded in its wake.
China’s announcement that it would table “parameters” for a resolution to the conflict spoke directly to these concerns. The statement was also designed to signal that while the West was “fanning the flames” of war – as China has claimed – it is a “responsible power” that sought to bring parties to dialogue.
The plan itself, however, proved to be anticlimactic. Instead of a road map to peace, with actionable goals, Beijing’s position paper mainly restated general principles that it has advocated for years in multilateral settings, including respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states and the need for peaceful resolution to disputes. It did, importantly, call for the protection of civilians, resolution of the humanitarian crisis and an end to threats of nuclear use, all of which should please Western ears.
At the same time, it contained thinly disguised swipes at the West for perpetuating a “Cold War mentality” and for the politicization of aid. It also condemned unilateral sanctions and claimed that the only legitimate sanctions are ones authorized by the UN Security Council – without addressing the obvious problem that Russia’s privileged position on that council prevents just such an authorization.
Those who have rubbed shoulders with China’s diplomats will recognize Beijing’s statement as an exercise in great-power diplomacy, Chinese style. Russia’s conduct of the war, combined with the powerful votes in the UN General Assembly calling for Moscow to withdraw its troops from Ukraine’s territory, makes the paradoxical Chinese stance of “pro-Russian neutrality” difficult to sustain. But through this recent plan China simply seeks to do what all great powers do: make itself indispensable to the resolution of conflicts outside its direct sphere of influence. Both the U.S. and Russia have been doing so for decades.
Western leaders should therefore be wary of dismissing Beijing’s efforts altogether or too soon. Mr. Biden quipped that if Mr. Putin was praising the plan, “how could it be any good?” while NATO’s Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg, claimed that China has no credibility as a peacemaker given it refuses to denounce Russia’s initial invasion.
By contrast, French President Emmanuel Macron, along with Mr. Zelensky himself, have stated that Chinese engagement itself is positive. China is the one player, Mr. Macron insists, that can help pressure Russia to refrain from using weapons of mass destruction and to rollback its aggression as a precondition for talks. This is an acknowledgment of China’s global standing – however uncomfortable it might be for some members of the Western alliance.