The Independent

The Ukraine war has handed China lots of opportunit­ies


So taken up was the Western world with reiteratin­g its support for Ukraine a year after the Russian invasion, that it barely registered how a very large power on the other side of the world had marked the anniversar­y in a rather different way. Even as the United States, the UK and the Europeans were girding

themselves for another year of conflict and competing for laurels in the supply of arms, China came out with... a peace plan.

To the extent that the plan received any Western attention at all, it was dismissive. The general message was that now was no time for talking, and anyway that China had no business – and no credibilit­y – in setting itself up as a potential go-between.

A few weeks on, however, not only has China’s 12-point “position paper” not gone away, but there are reports that it is at least being looked at in Paris and Berlin, and maybe even in Washington DC. Still more significan­tly, it has not been rejected by Kyiv, which has given it what was described as a “cautious welcome”. In the light of this small signal, perhaps, China has quietly pressed on. It is confidentl­y forecast that Xi Jinping, newly confirmed as China’s president for an unpreceden­ted third term, will visit Moscow next week, with a "remote" meeting with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, scheduled for shortly before or after.

And this would mark quite a shift. There has been no formal contact between Ukraine and Russia, or indeed any known contact even through intermedia­ries, since the Istanbul talks almost a year ago. These, it was authoritat­ively claimed, broke down because of an interventi­on by the then-UK prime minister Boris Johnson, instructed by the United States.

So what does the 12-point plan say? Why might China be showing more than a passing interest in mediating? And why might Moscow and Kyiv – and maybe even, at a stretch, some of Kyiv’s Western allies – be less averse to some tentative talking than their public statements hitherto might suggest?

First, the plan. China has received brickbats from Ukraine and its backers for consistent­ly abstaining – so not joining the Western condemnati­on of Russia – in UN votes. One year into the war, however, this allows China to have things both ways.

Its first point calls for respect for national sovereignt­y, UN principles and internatio­nal law – it implicitly condemns Russia’s invasion. But its second calls for an end to what it calls “the cold war mentality” and demands that “the security of a

region should not be achieved by strengthen­ing or expanding military blocs” – so there, Nato. It also advocates “a balanced, effective and sustainabl­e European security architectu­re” – something Moscow has argued for ever since the Soviet Union’s collapse.

In other points, specifical­ly related to Ukraine, China calls for an upping of humanitari­an aid to conflict zones under UN auspices, strict observance of internatio­nal safeguards for prisoners of war, an end to loose talk about nuclear weapons, the protection of nuclear power stations (though not the de-militarise­d zones Ukraine has called for), and the need to continue the agreement that allows grain ships to leave Ukrainian ports.

In many respects – in its calls for de-escalation, for an end to actions that threaten global trade and supply chains, and its rejection of unilateral (ie not UN-approved) sanctions, China is looking further than the Ukraine war and representi­ng its own interests and priorities, After all, the same principles could help regulate the increasing tensions in its relations with the US over Taiwan and access to sea lanes. But it is also setting itself up as an advocate for the many countries that, along with China and India, have declined to take sides on Ukraine.

China is providing an alternate market for the Russian energy the Europeans have spurned. This gives it unusual leverage in Moscow. And that leverage could be applied to furthering its own agenda

In practical terms, China calls for a resumption of direct dialogue “as soon as possible” with a view to “ultimately” reaching “a comprehens­ive ceasefire”. Its initiative also appeals to the parties to the conflict and other countries to help create the necessary conditions for this to happen – all of which sounds like a pretty tall order.

But it might be worth giving China’s initiative a little more credence than it has received so far, at least in public forums in the West. This is because, with the war a year old and seemingly nowhere near resolution, quite a lot of divergent interests may nonetheles­s be starting to come together.

For Russia, the war has not been going well, but it has not been going so badly as to fuel domestic pressure for a retreat. Whether or not you regard Vladimir Putin and Xi as bosom buddies (and I don’t), Moscow has reason to be grateful to Beijing. China is providing an alternate market for the Russian energy the Europeans have spurned, and it has withheld criticism of Russia at the UN. This gives it unusual leverage in Moscow. And that leverage could be applied to furthering its own agenda.

It could also be argued that Russia has achieved at least some of its major war aims. They would include securing the land route to Crimea, reconnecti­ng the supply of fresh water to the peninsula and establishi­ng exclusive access to the Azov Sea. Russia also appears to have abandoned any ambition – if it had one – of taking territory further west than the Donbas. Might it be prepared to stop here and cut its losses?

With presidenti­al elections next year, Putin might be persuaded to claim victory and end hostilitie­s, rather than enter an election campaign – either for himself or a successor – with a costly campaign still in progress. Putin has recently said that the elections will take place, but has not committed to standing himself (which should not – despite this being the Western consensus – be assumed).

Ukraine, for its part, has increased its objectives to include the recovery of the Donbas and Crimea. It has enshrined in law its refusal to talk to Putin and insists that it will fight to the end. All of which can be well understood. But if the stalemate near Bakhmut in the east has exposed Russia’s weakness, it has exposed Ukraine’s weakness, too.

Ukraine’s losses are mounting, there are reports of difficulti­es in recruitmen­t, and it faces delays in obtaining fresh supplies of

weapons and ammunition. There are conflictin­g assessment­s of Ukrainian morale. That Ukraine did not reject China’s initiative out of hand may be telling.

As for its allies, they are still insisting that they will defend Ukraine “for as long as it takes”. But there are mutterings of impatience, and not only in some US political circles, about the drain on individual countries’ financial and military resources. The cost of reconstruc­tion – that the Europeans fear will largely be left to them – mounts by the day.

The time and the terms of any end to the war, say its allies fiercely, will be up to Kyiv – but, like Kyiv, they surely know that this is not true. When the West tires of the cost, and perhaps also the risks of a wider conflagrat­ion, Kyiv will have little choice but to seek a resolution on the best terms it can get. The approach of the US presidenti­al election in November will further concentrat­e minds.

And then there is China. The war in Ukraine has handed Beijing opportunit­ies that it might once have seen as, at best, quite a lot further down the line. It has fostered its energy security; it has given China a friendlier hinterland at a time when it feels its maritime security under threat from the US. It has also allowed Xi – who may now be approachin­g the height of his power – to parade as the defender-in-chief of a non-Western bloc, also known as the “global south”; and not just at the UN.

With China’s 12-point plan for Ukraine, Xi Jinping is bidding, in the first instance, to assume the mediator's mantle cast off by Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is now preoccupie­d with the aftermath of an earthquake and the imminence of elections. And his efforts could come to nothing.

In the event that progress is made, however, China’s initiative would have to be seen, and not just with hindsight, as the precursor of a whole new internatio­nal order. Which is why, a cynic might say, there are some who will do their utmost to ensure it fails.

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 ?? (AP) ?? Unlike Western nations, Xi has decided to keep relations with Russia neutral
(AP) Unlike Western nations, Xi has decided to keep relations with Russia neutral
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