faculty & experts
27 February 2023

How Viable Is a Chinese Peace Plan for the War on Ukraine?

Fred Tanner, Research Associate at the Centre on Conflict, Development and Peacebuilding (CCDP), Visiting Professor, and former Director of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy (GCSP) looks at China’s 12-point peace plan to end the war in Ukraine and possible outcomes.

On the anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s Foreign Ministry presented a 12-point peace plan to end the war in Ukraine. This plan was announced by Chinese top diplomat Wang Yi at the Munich Security Conference on 18 February. As it turns out, it is less a peace plan but rather a policy position, as the title of the plan now indicates:  “China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis“.

Indeed, the document is not very actionable and rests on the level of principles, drawing partially from Russian narratives. The plan is also on shaky foundations, as it has been drafted in consultation with Moscow but not with Kyiv. Furthermore, during the 23 February 2023 vote of the UN General Assembly on Ukraine, China chose to abstain and therefore did not condemn the Russian invasion. Should China cross the red line drawn by US Secretary Anthony Blinken at the Munich Security Conference (no lethal weapons delivery to Russia) then this peace plan may have no future at all.  

Here a few comments on elements on the policy paper

  • “The security of a country should not be pursued at the expense of others”. It clearly resonates Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov’s ultimatum-like request to NATO countries on 17 December 2021 that “they shall not strengthen their security individually, within international organisations, military alliances or coalitions at the expense of the security of other Parties”, attempting to hedge NATO enlargement with the Helsinki principle of indivisibility of security.
  • China differentiates in the document between a process leading to a “comprehensive cease-fire agreement” and a process “resuming peace talks”. The inauspicious experience with the Minsk agreements has shown that a single agreement mixing up stipulations on cease-fire and political settlement complicates implementation.  For the proposed peace talks, China offered to help to “open the door to a political settlement as soon as possible, and create conditions and platforms for the resumption of negotiation”.    
  • Institutionally, China puts forward the UN as a lead agent in attempts to de-escalate the crisis in Ukraine, strengthen humanitarian action, protect the safety and security of civil nuclear facilities (IAEA), and facilitate grain exports.
  • Under “reducing strategic risks”, China takes clear opposition to the threat or use of nuclear weapons that could be read as primarily directed against Russia, which has just suspended the New START treaty. Furthermore, in his state of the nation address on 21 February, Russian President Vladimir Putin correlated the fight against the West, now a military adversary, as a fight for survival of Russia that would require a nuclear-level escalation.   
  • Emphasising the humanitarian dimension of the war, China calls for the protection of civilians and prisoners of war (POWs) “by abiding international humanitarian law, avoiding attacking civilians or civilian facilities, protecting women, children and other victims of the conflict, and respecting the basic rights of POWs”. China insinuates its intention to play a role in future prisoner exchanges.
  • By rejecting “unilateral sanctions, unauthorised by the UN Security Council”, China supports the Russian narrative directly, portraying sanctions as unjustified and politically motivated measures imposed by the West in order to undermine Russia's sovereignty and security.

If Beijing wants to acquire international credibility as a mediator in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, then it  has also to get a buy-in by Ukraine. This would require that the peace plan become more “balanced”, remove Russian narratives and stress the principles of territorial integrity and inviolability of frontiers. Furthermore, it would make sense if the Chinese leader Xi Jinping, while travelling for a meeting to Moscow this spring, could also find an opportunity to meet with President Zelensky… why not in Geneva, the United Nations' European headquarters?

China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis:

  1. Respecting the sovereignty of all countries. Universally recognized international law, including the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter, must be strictly observed. The sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries must be effectively upheld. All countries, big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor, are equal members of the international community. All parties should jointly uphold the basic norms governing international relations and defend international fairness and justice. Equal and uniform application of international law should be promoted, while double standards must be rejected.
  2. Abandoning the Cold War mentality. The security of a country should not be pursued at the expense of others. The security of a region should not be achieved by strengthening or expanding military blocs. The legitimate security interests and concerns of all countries must be taken seriously and addressed properly. There is no simple solution to a complex issue. All parties should, following the vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security and bearing in mind the long-term peace and stability of the world, help forge a balanced, effective and sustainable European security architecture. All parties should oppose the pursuit of one’s own security at the cost of others’ security, prevent bloc confrontation, and work together for peace and stability on the Eurasian Continent.
  3. Ceasing hostilities. 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 spiraling out of control. All parties should support Russia and Ukraine in working in the same direction and resuming direct dialogue as quickly as possible, so as to gradually deescalate the situation and ultimately reach a comprehensive ceasefire.
  4. Resuming peace talks. Dialogue and negotiation are the only viable solution to the Ukraine crisis. All efforts conducive to the peaceful settlement of the crisis must be encouraged and supported. The international community should stay committed to the right approach of promoting talks for peace, help parties to the conflict open the door to a political settlement as soon as possible, and create conditions and platforms for the resumption of negotiation. China will continue to play a constructive role in this regard.
  5. Resolving the humanitarian crisis. All measures conducive to easing the humanitarian crisis must be encouraged and supported. Humanitarian operations should follow the principles of neutrality and impartiality, and humanitarian issues should not be politicized. The safety of civilians must be effectively protected, and humanitarian corridors should be set up for the evacuation of civilians from conflict zones. Efforts are needed to increase humanitarian assistance to relevant areas, improve humanitarian conditions, and provide rapid, safe and unimpeded humanitarian access, with a view to preventing a humanitarian crisis on a larger scale. The UN should be supported in playing a coordinating role in channeling humanitarian aid to conflict zones.
  6. Protecting civilians and prisoners of war (POWs). Parties to the conflict should strictly abide by international humanitarian law, avoid attacking civilians or civilian facilities, protect women, children and other victims of the conflict, and respect the basic rights of POWs. China supports the exchange of POWs between Russia and Ukraine, and calls on all parties to create more favorable conditions for this purpose.
  7. Keeping nuclear power plants safe. China opposes armed attacks against nuclear power plants or other peaceful nuclear facilities, and calls on all parties to comply with international law including the Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS) and resolutely avoid man-made nuclear accidents. China supports the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in playing a constructive role in promoting the safety and security of peaceful nuclear facilities.
  8. Reducing strategic risks. Nuclear weapons must not be used and nuclear wars must not be fought. The threat or use of nuclear weapons should be opposed. Nuclear proliferation must be prevented and nuclear crisis avoided. China opposes the research, development and use of chemical and biological weapons by any country under any circumstances.
  9. Facilitating grain exports. All parties need to implement the Black Sea Grain Initiative signed by Russia, Türkiye, Ukraine and the UN fully and effectively in a balanced manner, and support the UN in playing an important role in this regard. The cooperation initiative on global food security proposed by China provides a feasible solution to the global food crisis.
  10. Stopping unilateral sanctions. Unilateral sanctions and maximum pressure cannot solve the issue; they only create new problems. China opposes unilateral sanctions unauthorized by the UN Security Council. Relevant countries should stop abusing unilateral sanctions and “long-arm jurisdiction” against other countries, so as to do their share in deescalating the Ukraine crisis and create conditions for developing countries to grow their economies and better the lives of their people.
  11. Keeping industrial and supply chains stable. All parties should earnestly maintain the existing world economic system and oppose using the world economy as a tool or weapon for political purposes. Joint efforts are needed to mitigate the spillovers of the crisis and prevent it from disrupting international cooperation in energy, finance, food trade and transportation and undermining the global economic recovery.
  12. Promoting post-conflict reconstruction. The international community needs to take measures to support post-conflict reconstruction in conflict zones. China stands ready to provide assistance and play a constructive role in this endeavour.