What to watch out for in Xi Jinping’s Ukraine war ‘peace plan’

Experts believe that China is unlikely to supply weapons to Russia.

Lim Min Zhang

Lim Min Zhang

The Straits Times


Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to deliver a major speech on Friday outlining a so-called “peace plan” for the war. PHOTO: REUTERS

February 24, 2023

SINGAPORE – Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to deliver a major speech on Friday outlining a “peace plan” for the Ukraine war. Here are three questions to which analysts are looking for answers.

1. Will China provide military aid to Russia? If yes, what sort?

Experts believe that China is unlikely to supply weapons to Russia.

United States and European officials have recently cited intelligence that Beijing was mulling over this possibility, although it has so far refrained from sending lethal aid such as artillery shells.

In response to such concerns, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said at a regular media conference on Wednesday that this was “groundless speculation”.

Research fellow James Char of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) believes that the claim of arms supply to Russia remains speculation.

But Beijing has been exploiting Moscow’s predicament by buying more Russian commodities at a discount since the start of the conflict, while avoiding transactions that might risk secondary sanctions, he said.

“I think the Chinese Communist Party leadership would not want to take that risk, especially since the Chinese economy is still in the midst of recovering from its previous zero-Covid policy,” added Dr Char.

Other experts have said that China supplying weapons to Russia could be perceived as an escalation of the war, and worsen relations with the US and other Western nations, running contrary to Beijing’s recent efforts to mend ties.

Dr Benjamin Ho of RSIS’ China programme said China’s goal is simple: So long as the war does not spill into China, it is in Beijing’s interests to have all the major players distracted in Ukraine.

“Having the West being bogged down with a conflict with Russia clearly works to Beijing’s advantage. Whether that requires China to send lethal weapons or not, I leave it to others’ imagination.”

2. What specific proposals will Mr Xi provide to end the war?

Dr Chen Gang, a senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute, believes that Mr Xi’s peace initiative would include asking both sides to agree to a ceasefire and resume peace talks.

He could ask other countries to stop supplying weapons to Ukraine, and for Ukraine to promise not to join the US-led Nato military alliance. He is likely to say that Russia’s security concerns should be respected.

These are part of China’s basic position on the war, and Dr Chen does not expect a significant policy shift to be announced.

“I don’t think they will ask Russia to withdraw to pre-February 2022 positions or to give up Crimea.”

China has refused to condemn Russia’s action or call it an invasion, instead using Moscow’s line that Nato had provoked the conflict. But Beijing has also said it is against war and the use of nuclear weapons.

Dr Char said the speech will largely comprise broad statements calling for a negotiated settlement that fall short of specifics on how to end the war.

By sticking to this third camp between the pro-Nato and pro-Russia positions, Beijing can continue to enjoy the most advantageous position among the major powers, he added.

This means it neither needs to exhaust its military and human resources like Moscow, nor hand over billions of dollars in aid, as Washington has been doing.

Dr Ho added: “I doubt China has any clear plan to resolve the Ukraine war, at least not one which will be acceptable to Ukraine and other Western countries.”

3. How will the plan fit into Mr Xi’s grand security vision for the world?

Political scientist Chong Ja Ian of the National University of Singapore expects Mr Xi’s speech to follow along the lines of the Global Security Initiative concept paper that China released on Tuesday, with broad statements about non-nuclear use and respect for sovereignty.

The initiative  launched by Mr Xi in 2022 – is his flagship security proposal, which aims to uphold “indivisible security”, a concept also endorsed by Russia.

The concept paper also stated, among other things, that the use of “unilateral sanctions and long-arm jurisdiction” do not solve problems, but only create more difficulties and complications – likely a reference to US and other Western nations that have imposed economic sanctions on Russia over the war.

Dr Char said the concept of “indivisible security” essentially calls for the right to safeguard one’s legitimate security interests, and that no country’s security should be built at the expense of others’ security.

China also believes it has little to gain from switching to a pro-West position, and it does need Russia as a diplomatic partner.

“Beijing realises that anything but a contrarian position (to the West) would deprive it of much-needed diplomatic space to manoeuvre, and so will likely continue to refrain from criticising Russia – publicly, at least.”

China is aware that its disagreements with the US and the other Western powers would not simply disappear even if it were to side with Kyiv, he added.

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