To many observers’ surprise, Chinese president Xi Jinping’s foreign policy cohort marked the anniversary of the Russo-Ukrainian War by proposing a peace plan to end the conflict. The proposal, seemingly a reversal of Beijing’s support for Russia, consists of twelve points calling for “[c]easing hostilities”; “[r]especting the sovereignty of all countries”; and “[r]esolving the humanitarian crisis,” among other things. The Biden administration quickly rejected any immediate China-sponsored peace settlement by stating that it was “not rational.” NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg cynically remarked that China “has little credibility because they have not been able to condemn the illegal invasion of Ukraine.”
However, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy expressed interest in Beijing’s points, stating, “I plan to meet with Xi Jinping, and I think that would be useful to our countries and global security.”
Xi has, therefore, managed to outmaneuver the Biden White House’s total victory posture with China’s twelve-point peace proposal despite Beijing’s support for Russian president Vladimir Putin. The People’s Republic of China attempts to harness discontent over America’s Ukraine policy to paint Washington as recklessly escalating great power tensions. Beijing’s Ukrainian peace plan also appeals to the broader developing world and the European Union, given the various global problems Putin’s invasion has created.
The rejection of Washington’s liberal internationalism plays into China’s ideological relationships with regimes throughout the developing world, such as African and Latin American states, who have been ambivalent towards Putin’s attacks on Ukraine. China does not have democratic litmus tests for sustained relations with these commodity-dependent economies, a policy Biden’s Washington has expanded in the post-Trump era. A China-brokered peace deal appeals to populist governments like Mexico, Brazil, and South Africa due to the Cold War legacy relationships China has with the leadership of these countries. After Mao Zedong’s death, Beijing became pragmatic in its Third World relationships by prioritizing economic development over the Soviet Union’s instance on ideological commitments from its partners.
In South Africa’s case, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has ties to the African National Congress (ANC) through its support of the anti-Apartheid struggle. Beijing guided activists fighting white-minority rule in the country to the point that Nelson Mandela spoke favorably of China’s revolution. These relationships between the two ruling parties have continued after Apartheid’s demise, with the ANC increasingly modeling itself after the CCP.
The dire global impacts of Putin’s war have created economic incentives for countries like South Africa to support China’s peace proposals. The conflict’s impact on international commodity trading has sent food and energy prices skyrocketing, creating risks for South Africa’s already stagnant economy. The surge in critical commodity prices caused by Russia’s stalled Ukraine invasion endangers fragile South African monetary policy, sending the rand’s high inflation levels even higher.
China’s Ukraine proposal appeals to the developing world’s economic concerns by promising to end sanctions, reenable grain exports, and secure supply chains. Even emerging economies with strained relations with Beijing, such as India and Vietnam, would welcome the resumption of uninhibited trade relations with Russia.
Key European Union member states such as France, Germany, and Italy could also welcome a Chinese-negotiated settlement to the Ukraine War; like developing countries, the disruption to commodity supply chains has especially hurt European consumers who relied on Russian petroleum and Ukrainian agriculture before Putin’s invasion.
Brussels, Berlin, Paris, and Rome have China lobbies that could advocate for a negotiated settlement. Germany especially wants to see the Ukraine War end, with some commentators predicting billions of euros of damage to the EU’s flagship economy despite a resilient outlook. The disruptions caused by the war disproportionately impacted Germany’s politically-powerful auto industry, which has extensive business interests in China, Russia, and Ukraine. German chancellor Olof Scholz and French president Emmanuel Macron responded to these concerns before the war by attempting to de-escalate with Putin.
There is a long-established tendency among the French and German governments, dating back to the Suez crisis, to pursue a Russian policy independent of American pressure. Some European policy leaders fear continued brinkmanship toward Russia, like America First conservatives, will result in a broader war, potentially involving nuclear arms.
As mentioned, Ukrainian elites like Zelenskyy have expressed interest in a Chinese-led peace deal. Incentives from Beijing might encourage Putin to withdraw from Ukrainian territory if he cannot be militarily defeated. It would buy Kyiv time to bolster its national defenses and repair infrastructure damaged by Russian aggression should Putin break any hypothetical Beijing-backed peace agreement. Any reprieve from the fighting would also give Ukraine’s badly stricken population a humanitarian ceasefire after over a year of constant warfare.
Zelenskyy is skeptical of Washington’s long-term promises to Ukraine. Biden is heading into a contested 2024 reelection campaign with low approvals and facing a Republican opposition skeptical of sustained aid to Ukraine. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives wants more oversight of the American dollars going to Kyiv. If voters elect a Republican president in 2024, the ongoing military aid programs to Ukraine could be suspended in favor of a neutral position to ease tensions with Moscow.
Kyiv’s new Western-oriented elites have further reasons to support a Chinese peace plan for their country. Before Covid-19 and the open war with Russia, Kyiv had strong trade relations with Beijing, and Ukraine serving as a critical piece of the Belt and Road Initiative. Keeping relationships open with China would diversify Ukraine’s partnerships in a postwar world, given that Ukraine is on the fringes of present-day Europe.
Embracing a Chinese peace deal doesn’t necessarily mean Ukraine is rejecting Washington. Like its Central European sister countries, Kyiv believes it can have good relations with the United States and China to hedge against Russian aggression and unaccountable promises made in Brussels. Turkey, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic once embraced European integration but became skeptical after the 2008 great financial crisis.
Ukraine pursued the same policy before the 2022 war, and Kyiv took extensive Western aid while enjoying a productive role in the Belt and Road Initiative. Zelenskyy believes China can play a constructive role in Ukraine’s postwar reconstruction along with the West, despite the former’s recent aid to Russia.
China can position itself as a broker in the Ukraine crisis as it initially opposed Russia’s invasion, even if it now pledges aid to Putin’s regime. Xi could broker a peace agreement, given that China had close relations with the two belligerents, which would go far in helping Beijing undo the damage caused to its reputation by the Covid-19 pandemic. This would become another example of Beijing’s longstanding policy of strategic ambiguity, adjusting to global circumstances as the CCP’s leadership sees fit.
The Ukraine War serves as a centerpiece for Washington’s messaging, as a fight to preserve democracy against illiberal authoritarianism. China’s advocacy for “abandoning the Cold War mentality” and being against the expansion of military blocs undercuts the Biden administration’s public foreign policy stance.
Beijing has read global opinion regarding Ukraine better than Washington. Public polling in Argentina, India, Malaysia, and Turkey shows widespread unenthusiasm, with many preferring a quick end to the Ukraine War and the resumption of normalcy. Support for further involvement in the war within the EU is also polarizing in France, Germany, Greece, Italy, and Hungary. Despite being regarded as an autocratic outlier within the EU, the Hungarian government has already backed Beijing’s conflict resolution ideas. China’s Ukraine policy threads a needle, appealing to domestic anxieties outside the Five Eyes countries caused by the ongoing conflict.
Consumed by hyper-partisanship in the post-Trump era, the United States fails to realize that Beijing is playing a long game against Western liberal democracies. The CCP, which rules China as an absolute one-party state, worries much less about day-to-day media talking points and winning a constant political campaign, unlike the United States’ governing machinery. These stark differences allow the Chinese to play a long strategic game against the United States, with the best example being tensions over Taiwan.
China’s peace proposal for Ukraine is Beijing’s effort to highlight Washington’s unreliability, in that U.S. policy varies from one partisan administration to the next. At the same time, Beijing can play to the common desire for a multipolar world among emerging and established states.
China ultimately wants to show it can behave responsibly by proposing solutions to international challenges. Beijing hopes to paint Washington as reckless while signaling a perception that it is trying to build a coalition of countries to end the war in Ukraine through diplomacy. In contrast, the Biden administration’s support for unconditional Ukrainian victory is giving Xi an opportunity to label the United States as an aggressor and isolate it on the world stage.
Kevin Brown has an MSc. in International History from the London School of Economics and Political Science and works in Washington, DC. He has previously written for Real Clear World, the Diplomat, and the National Interest, His twitter handle is @KevinBrown778.