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Can China Really Be An Unbiased Broker Of Peace?

  • China has released a 12-point peace proposal aimed at ending the war in Ukraine.
  • In the proposal, China calls for the end of Western sanctions against Moscow, humanitarian corridors to evacuate civilians, regular grain exports, and calls against the use of nuclear weapons.
  • Western skeptics say that China will need to tell Moscow “things they don't want to hear” in order to make any major progress toward peace.
China

A position paper unveiled by Beijing pushing for a cease-fire in Ukraine has been met skeptically by many experts and Western officials who question China’s ability to broker a truce given its growing ties with Russia.

Released by China on February 24 to coincide with the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion, the 12-point proposal calls for an end to Western sanctions against Moscow, setting up humanitarian corridors for the evacuation of civilians, ensuring the regular export of Ukrainian grain, security guarantees for Russia, and calls against the use of nuclear weapons.

The paper pitches a gradual de-escalation of hostilities that would pave the way for peace talks, but China’s call for a truce between Russia and Ukraine quickly faced scrutiny as it appeared to reaffirm Beijing’s position that the West is fueling the conflict while seemingly offering Moscow a reprieve.

“Beijing is speaking to a global audience with this paper,” Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told RFE/RL. “But for China to seriously push for peace, they would have to tell Moscow things they don’t want to hear, and there is no evidence that [Beijing] has ever told Russia to step back -- either behind the scenes or in front of the cameras.”

Peace-Broker Status

Those stepped-up ties were most recently on display during a February 23 visit to Moscow by Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat, and saw Russian President Vladimir Putin hail “new frontiers” in the relationship as he signaled that Chinese leader Xi Jinping would visit Russia in the spring.

The paper itself mainly revisits long-held Chinese foreign policy positions and views on the war, such as asking for all countries to ensure that “sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity be effectively guaranteed.”

But it also included language that appeared to be directed at the West, including calls to end the “Cold War mentality” toward the conflict and warning against “expanding military blocs,” which are terms the Chinese Foreign Ministry has used in the past to refer to what it views as Washington’s interference in other countries’ affairs and the growth of the NATO military alliance.

“[It’s] interesting in any case, since China has so far not done many things in terms of mediation,” a senior European Union official who requested anonymity because they were not cleared to speak to the media, told RFE/RL. “I think the main goal is to improve their own reputation.”

A separate senior EU official told RFE/RL that the proposal should be seen in the context of China looking to appear as “a leader of the ‘Global South’ and as a peace promoter,” adding that “Europe is not wooed” by the Chinese initiative.

The Chinese call for a truce comes after a year of Beijing looking to present itself as a neutral party to the war -- rejecting Western attempts to get China to condemn Russia’s war in Ukraine.

A few weeks before the Russian invasion, Xi and Putin heralded a new era of relations by announcing a “no-limits” partnership between their two countries that many analysts say is driven by a shared desire to push back against the United States.

Throughout the war, Beijing has carefully avoided any bold moves to help Russia that would lead to Western backlash while simultaneously deepening cooperation with Moscow. This has included providing crucial economic and diplomatic support for Russia, such as buying up Russian energy and parroting Moscow’s narrative of the war in its media and at international forums like the United Nations.

On February 23, Beijing also abstained -- for the fourth time -- from a UN vote demanding that Russian forces withdraw from Ukraine.

Some Western officials had hoped Xi could use China’s growing economic support for Russia as leverage to nudge Putin toward the negotiating table, but Temur Umarov, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says Beijing’s position paper and its new, more visible role is about cementing its status as “a global superpower” that seeks to counterbalance the West on the world stage.

“This is a very vague text that doesn’t really bring anything new,” Umarov told RFE/RL. “It’s hard to imagine how this could affect the future of the war in Ukraine.”

Eyeing Beijing And Moscow

Public reactions to the proposal have ranged from critical to muted.

Speaking to CNN shortly after the paper was released, U.S. national-security adviser Jake Sullivan dismissed much of the proposal’s contents, saying it could have stopped “at point one, which is to respect the sovereignty of all nations.”

“Ukraine wasn’t attacking Russia. NATO wasn’t attacking Russia. The United States wasn’t attacking Russia,” he added. “Russia’s aims in the war were to wipe Ukraine off the map, to absorb it into Russia.”

In Beijing, Jorge Toledo, the EU’s ambassador to China, told reporters at a February 24 briefing that what China released was a position paper not a peace plan, and that the bloc would study it.

Ukrainian officials were not consulted on the paper, but Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that Wang had shared “key elements of the Chinese peace plan” with him during a meeting at the Munich Security Conference.

Speaking at the same press briefing as Toledo in Beijing, Zhanna Leshchynska, Ukraine’s charge d’affaires at its embassy in China, said that the Chinese paper was “a good sign.”

“We hope they also urge Russia to stop the war and withdraw its troops,” Leshchynska added.

During a February 23 press conference in Kyiv with Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez prior to the paper’s release, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy called the Chinese move an important first step.

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“I think that, in general, the fact that China started talking about peace in Ukraine, I think that it is not bad,” he said.

The Chinese paper also comes amid rising tensions between Beijing and Washington and accusations that China is considering supplying military equipment to Russia.

That claim has been raised by U.S. officials multiple times recently, and The Wall Street Journal reported that Washington is considering releasing intelligence on the alleged arms transfer.

The German magazine Der Spiegel also claimed in a report published on February 23, citing unnamed sources, that Moscow was in negotiations with a Chinese company about supplying large quantities of strike drones.

Chinese officials haven’t commented on the Der Spiegel report but have strongly rejected the U.S. claims, with Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin saying, “The U.S. side isn’t qualified to point fingers at China or order China around, and we never accept the [United States] criticizing Sino-Russian relations.”

Those accusations, coupled with the fact that Xi has yet to speak with Zelenskiy since Russia’s invasion one year ago, hurt China’s credibility as a mediator and only add to the skepticism over the new position paper, Umarov says.

“Kyiv knows that China is on Moscow's side,” he says. “China's proposals might not be pro-Russian per se, but they are certainly anti-West, and that makes it difficult for Ukraine to meaningfully engage with any of this.”

By RFE/RL

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