China’s long game over peace in Ukraine

There are hints that the CCP would like to drive a strategic wedge between Europe and the US

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Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi at the Munich Security Conference (Getty)
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At the Munich Security Conference over the weekend, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi announced that his country was currently in consultations with "our friends in Europe" over the framework of a peace proposal for Ukraine. It is to be laid out in full by President Xi Jinping on the first anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s invasion — February 24. Beijing’s peace initiative would, said Wang, underscore the "need to uphold the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and the UN Charter" but at the same time "respect [the] legitimate security interests of Russia."

On the face of it,...

At the Munich Security Conference over the weekend, China’s foreign minister Wang Yi announced that his country was currently in consultations with “our friends in Europe” over the framework of a peace proposal for Ukraine. It is to be laid out in full by President Xi Jinping on the first anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s invasion — February 24. Beijing’s peace initiative would, said Wang, underscore the “need to uphold the principles of sovereignty, territorial integrity and the UN Charter” but at the same time “respect [the] legitimate security interests of Russia.”

On the face of it, it appears that Beijing is not saying anything new. Furthermore, both German chancellor Olaf Scholz and French president Emmanuel Macron made it clear at the conference that there was no support for early peace talks and warned that the war would be a prolonged struggle. And yet China’s intervention is critically important to the conflict’s final outcome, not least because even a defeated Russia will remain powerful and dangerous unless Beijing steps in as both a guarantor of its security and a restraining hand on any future aggression.

China is the only country in the world in a position to offer Putin the real security guarantees that he demands as part of any post-war deal. And it is also the only country with serious diplomatic and strategic leverage over the Kremlin. Understandably, with Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky insisting in a video-link speech to Munich that the security of his country and of Europe can only be assured by a total expulsion of Russian forces from every part of Ukraine, talk of reaching any kind of accommodation with Putin smacks of appeasement and defeatism.

And yet there are no serious signs that Putin’s security regime faces any serious internal or external threats even after a year of war, sanctions and (according to NATO) losses of up to 200,000 troops killed, captured and critically injured. Nor, as professor Justin Bronk of the Royal United Services Institute warns, are there signs that Russia’s military is on the verge of collapse. For all the feel-good talk in Kyiv and Europe of bringing Russia’s leadership — including Putin himself — to a Hague-style war crimes tribunal, the reality is that both the Putin regime and Russia’s military have a pretty good chance of surviving the conflict battered, but intact. And it remains a certainty that whoever rules the Kremlin by the war’s end will still control the second-largest strategic nuclear arsenal on Earth.

On February 4 last year, Putin and Xi signed a “Friendship without Limits” security pact. But as I reported in my recent book Overreach, there was a confidential annex to that agreement that included something very like NATO’s Article 5 mutual security guarantees if either side’s territory was attacked. With great foresight, the Chinese hedged that pledge so that it would not include newly conquered territories, such as Putin’s annexed lands in Ukraine. And in practice, China has deeply disappointed the Kremlin by refusing to supply Russia with weapons, forcing Moscow to shop around for North Korean artillery shells and Iranian drones. Many major Chinese companies, fearful of being sanctioned themselves, have pulled out of Russia. Xi has repeatedly and vehemently condemned any threats to use nuclear weapons in a clear rebuke to Putin. And in Munich, Wang met with his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba, who said that he emerged reassured that “compliance with the principle of territorial integrity is China’s fundamental interest in the international arena.”

So Beijing has in fact so far shown impressive restraint over Ukraine, largely ignoring its security pact with Moscow in favor of what amounts to a Kremlin-leaning neutrality. But that could change. At Munich, US secretary of state Antony Blinken warned that, “based on information we have, [the Chinese] are considering providing lethal support” to Russia, even accusing Beijing of already supplying operational intelligence to the Kremlin-affiliated Wagner Group. “We’ve made very clear to them that that could cause a serious problem for us and in our relationship,” Blinken said.

In practice, China has far more to lose from openly siding with Moscow than it stands to gain — not least because Beijing does more than $1.5 trillion in annual trade with the US and only $100 billion with Russia. For Xi, the smart move is to continue to withhold serious military support to Moscow, instead seeking to play a constructive role in a post-war deal where Beijing would act as the kind of major military guarantor of Russia’s future territorial integrity that would allow Putin a face-saving way to end his disastrous Ukrainian campaign.

Saving Putin’s face is, of course, not currently on the western agenda. Defeating Putin in the field is. But if the war ends up at a bloody stalemate, the balance between those western voters calling for peace ­— even at the cost of Ukrainian territory — versus justice in the form of a total defeat for Russia is likely to change. All the more so if Putin, for instance, declares a ceasefire or offers to re-start peace talks. Such talks will, initially, inevitably go nowhere because of a fundamental contradiction in the two sides’ objectives. Putin wants a grand, Yalta-style deal with Washington that will establish Ukraine as a neutral buffer state and put an end to NATO expansion. Kyiv will insist on regaining Ukraine’s territorial integrity and on joining NATO — not least because ceding land for peace after so much sacrifice would be politically unsurvivable, not only for Zelensky but for any Ukrainian leader. And NATO has insisted that no deal will be done over Ukraine’s head.

But drill down into the substance of Beijing’s peace plan — effectively, that Russia has a legitimate cause to fear a NATO-member Ukraine — and it’s not a million miles from what Zelensky himself, along with his chief negotiator Mykhailo Podolyak, were willing to concede back in March and April last year. In those first desperate months of the war, Zelensky indicated that he was ready to trade full NATO membership in exchange for western security guarantees, as well as to discuss the future status of Crimea and the rebel republics of the Donbas. Zelensky’s main demand was that Russia withdraw to pre-invasion positions.

Now, as the first anniversary of the war approaches, it’s abundantly clear that Putin will do no such thing — indeed, the stated aim of his spring offensive is to take the remaining parts of the Donbas. As former US under-secretary of state Rose Gottemoeller told me on a recent Spectator podcast, “there can be no return to the status quo ante” after the war — while in the same sentence insisting that “international law must be respected.” Tragically for Ukraine, both those things cannot simultaneously be true. And in effect, that’s not too far from what Beijing is saying — eventually some formula must be found where lip service can be paid to Ukraine’s territorial integrity while at the same time recognizing that the pro-Russian parts of Ukraine have some agency over determining their own future.

Compromise with Putin is ugly, morally repellent and, at the moment, unsayable for most western politicians. “A just peace means not rewarding the attacker, the aggressor, but standing up for international law and for those who have been attacked,” Germany’s foreign minister Annalena Baerbock said after her meeting with Wang in Munich. But already in Hungary, Austria, Croatia, Italy and parts of the Republican Party, opposition to funding aid for Ukraine is growing. A December survey by Ipsos in twenty-eight western countries found that 64 percent of respondents said that “given the current economic crisis, [my country] cannot afford to lend financial support to Ukraine” and 42 percent responded that “the problems of Ukraine are none of our business, and we should not interfere” (though perhaps paradoxically, 70 percent agreed that “we must support sovereign countries when they are attacked by other countries”). Those Ukraine-skeptic constituencies — especially in Europe — are what Beijing is likely to target in its new peace initiative. “We need to think calmly, especially our friends in Europe, about what efforts should be made to stop the warfare,” Wang told the Munich conference. “What framework should there be to bring lasting peace to Europe [and] what role should Europe play to manifest its strategic autonomy” — a clear hint that China would like to drive a strategic wedge between Europe and the US.

Unease over escalating western support for Ukraine is also shared in many parts of the developing world — particularly in Brazil, India and many parts of Africa whose grain supplies have been disrupted by the war. Only thirty-four countries have imposed sanctions on Russia since the war started, and eighty-seven countries still offer Russian citizens visa-free entry, including Turkey, Argentina, Egypt, Israel, Mexico, Thailand and Venezuela. China, along with India and other key states in the global south, have abstained on votes condemning Russia at the United Nations. Trade between Russia and these countries has increased dramatically — for instance, a sixteen-fold boost in oil exports to India — since the beginning of the conflict. Putin’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, recently flew to South Africa for a controversial visit, and Moscow has been attempting to build alliances with many countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa. But it is Beijing, with its far greater diplomatic and economic clout in all those regions, that is likely to lead a global coalition backing its peace initiative in the United Nations’ General Assembly.

So yes — NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg was right when he labeled Wang’s peace proposal “quite vague.” But don’t be fooled. Behind the ambiguity is a determination both to bring the war to an end as soon as possible, as well as to emerge from the conflict diplomatically stronger and more secure — which in practice means denying the US and NATO a total victory over Russia. Beijing’s game is a long one, and its power as a key arbiter in the Ukraine war is, as yet, un-flexed.

This article was originally published on The Spectator’s UK website.