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Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with China's Director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission Wang Yi during a meeting in Moscow on Feb. 22.SPUTNIK/Reuters

Just hours after abstaining from a United Nations vote on Friday calling on Russia to withdraw from Ukraine, China released a 12-point proposal to end the conflict.

There was little new in the document, however, which reiterates Beijing’s long-standing position on the war – calling for an immediate ceasefire and peace talks, as well as the dropping of sanctions against Moscow.

“Conflict and war benefit no one. All parties must stay rational and exercise restraint, avoid fanning the flames and aggravating tensions, and prevent the crisis from deteriorating further or even spiralling out of control,” China’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said in the statement. “Dialogue and negotiation are the only viable solution to the Ukraine crisis.”

Such rhetoric has not stopped China from providing diplomatic and economic support to Russia over the past year. Beijing’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow this week in what was framed by the Kremlin as a show of solidarity.

The paper also noted that the “legitimate security interests and concerns of all countries must be taken seriously and addressed properly,” a reference to Russia’s justification for the war – that it is under threat from an increasingly expansionist NATO – and nodded to conspiracy theories pushed by the Kremlin about supposed U.S. bioweapon labs in Ukraine.

“No one who reads this can come away with the idea that China is in any way a neutral mediator,” Manoj Kewalramani, a China studies fellow at the Bangalore-based Takshashila Institution, wrote in an analysis. “The concerns reflected in this document are around escalation and spillover effects … rather than the war itself.”

At a briefing in Beijing, Ukraine’s chargé d’affaires, Zhanna Leshchynska, called the paper “a good sign” but said she expects China to “urge Russia to stop the war and withdraw its troops.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said he would welcome talks with Beijing. But he has yet to speak with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is planning a visit to Moscow. The Chinese and Russian leaders have met multiple times – in person and remotely – over the past year, and Russian’s invasion of Ukraine began shortly after they declared their partnership had “no limits.”

At the time, China condemned what it called Western aggression, blaming it for provoking Russia, and has since repeatedly accused the U.S. and NATO of causing and prolonging the war. Chinese media coverage of the war’s anniversary and Beijing’s proposal to end the conflict hit the same notes Friday.

“While Russia and Ukraine appear to have reached a deadlock on the battlefield and at the negotiating table, the United States continues to agitate the conflict and profit from it,” said the official Xinhua News Agency. “Washington’s ‘football game’ on the bloody battlefield in Ukraine brings fortunes to U.S. war and energy businesses.”

China abstained Thursday when the UN General Assembly approved a non-binding resolution that calls for Russia to end hostilities in Ukraine and withdraw its forces. China is one of 16 countries that either voted against or abstained on almost all of five previous resolutions on Ukraine.

India also abstained this week amid reports that New Delhi, which currently holds the G20 presidency, has pushed for the bloc not to use the word “war” or advocate for more sanctions against Russia.

According to recent polling by the European Council on Foreign Relations, 42 per cent of Chinese respondents and 54 per cent of Indians agreed that the “conflict between Russia and Ukraine needs to stop as soon as possible, even if it means Ukraine giving control of areas to Russia.” Most Chinese respondents also said that U.S. and European support for Ukraine “is driven by the desire to protect Western dominance.”

In the paper published Friday, China condemned sanctions that had not been approved by the UN Security Council – where both Beijing and Moscow have veto power – saying unilateral measures “cannot solve the issue; they only create new problems.”

The closest the statement came to criticism of Russia was in saying that “the threat or use of nuclear weapons should be opposed,” echoing previous statements by Mr. Xi and coming after Mr. Putin suspended his country’s participation in an atomic weapons treaty with the U.S. and vowed to boost his country’s nuclear forces.

And yet Friday’s statement did not mention Russia by name when discussing nuclear weapons.

Asked about Russia’s withdrawal this week from the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said Beijing “hopes the two sides can properly resolve the differences through constructive dialogue and consultation to ensure the treaty’s sound implementation.”

Beijing’s proposal for ending the war also comes amid multiple reports, hotly denied by China, that it is preparing to provide weapons to Russia. Speaking Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Washington had intelligence “that strongly indicates” Beijing is considering providing lethal aid. German newspaper Der Spiegel reported this could involve providing “100 strike drones,” similar to the Iranian-made suicide drones Russia is using in the war.

China’s ambassador to the UN, Dai Bing, told the General Assembly that “brutal facts offer an ample proof that sending weapons will not bring peace.”

But Drew Thompson, a senior fellow at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore, said it was notable that China’s Friday proposal did not include a prohibition on providing arms to either side, even as it accused the West of “fanning the flames of conflict.”

As for the language criticizing sanctions, he said it was “possible Beijing is getting ready to provide Russia with lethal support” and is pre-emptively arguing it should not face any backlash for doing so.

With files from Reuters and the Associated Press

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