Despite scepticism in the West, there is considerable international attention on the three-day state visit of China’s president Xi Jinping to Russia, around the possibilities of his 12-point peace initiative to end the war in Ukraine. At his first one-on-one meeting with the Chinese leader, Russia’s president Vladimir Putin told him that he viewed this initiative with respect. The Chinese supremo, fresh from his re-appointment as president for the third term, considers his initiative as one that takes into account the legitimate concerns of all parties and reflects the broadest common understanding of the international community on the year-long crisis.
After successfully brokering peace between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Xi hopes to do the same in Ukraine, which will enhance China’s standing as a global peacemaker. China and Russia share a strategic interest in hastening the relative decline of the US-led West in an increasingly multi-polar world. Putin considers Xi’s visit as a strong signal to the Western world that Russia is not isolated as it has a powerful ally that is committed to a “no limits” comprehensive and strategic partnership. The West’s hostility to Russia for its war in Ukraine has only led the latter into a deeper embrace with China. For all the sanctions that have been imposed on Russia, its economy has been less affected as it has diverted its oil and gas to China (and India). China’s trade with Russia has boomed by 34% to $186 billion over the past year. Xi’s visit and the summit outcomes further strengthen this lifeline.
The biggest problem with the 12-point proposal is that China is not viewed as a neutral player as it’s too closely aligned with Russia to be a credible peacemaker. For starters, the proposal upholds the UN Charter which codifies that the national sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all nations must be respected. The legitimate security concerns of all nations must also be taken seriously. As China does not characterise the ongoing conflict as an invasion, the question naturally is how Ukraine’s sovereignty and legitimate security concerns of Russia are upheld. Further, the proposal calls for a ceasefire and for peace-talks to begin as early as possible. But the Ukrainians, if not the Western world, are sceptical as it amounts to ratifying the invasion as it does not entail withdrawal of Russian troops from its soil.
While Putin commended China’s proposal for its impartiality and fairness, he added that this can be a basis for a peaceful settlement only when the West and Kyiv are ready for it. That there is no such readiness was evident in the UK’s decision to supply amour-piercing shells that contain depleted uranium. Putin promised to respond in equal measure. Despite the doubts, however, the West knows very well that only China has considerable leverage over Russia to nudge it in the direction of peace. China’s role as a peacemaker will, of course, be enhanced if Xi also reaches out to Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy after his Moscow visit. Unless the Ukrainians are fully on board, the initiative will only be interpreted as shoring up the position of Russia. Putin has perhaps done China a big favour in bogging down the West in Ukraine, thereby easing US pressure on China in Asia. Even so, no peace initiative can succeed unless the warring sides feel the need to silence their guns.