Could Beijing’s plan pave the way for an end of the Ukraine conflict?

Published May 22, 2024


Russian President Vladimir Putin signalled approval of China’s plan as a “genuine desire” to end the war in Ukraine, In an interview with China’s Xinhua state news agency, published on Wednesday.

Before the two-day visit to China to meet President Xi Jinping, Putin said China’s approach reflected that Beijing understood the conflict’s “root causes” and its “global geopolitical meaning”.

Putin arrived in Beijing last Thursday to mark his first trip abroad since his March re-election and his second in just over six months to China.

In March 2023, Xi met his Russian Putin at the Kremlin for talks about the war in Ukraine based on the 12-point political settlement framework. Following the discussions, Xi held his first telephonic meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

The discussions were followed by a telephonic conversation with Zelenskyy. As the first comprehensive proposals on how to end the war in Ukraine, the 12-point plan offered a “constructive” way to end the war, in a complex situation that has sucked major powers, risking another world war or nuclear conflict.

The 12-point Ukraine peace plan calls for respect to the sovereignty of all countries, based on universally recognised international law, including the purposes and principles of the UN Charter, abandoning the Cold War mentality based on the pursuance of a vision of common, comprehensive, co-operative and sustainable security, bearing in mind the long-term peace and stability of the world.

It further calls for an end to hostilities, resumption of peace talks, dialogue and negotiation, resolution of the humanitarian crisis, protection of civilians and prisoners of war (PoWs). Furthermore, the plan urged keeping nuclear power plants safe, reducing strategic risks from possible use of nuclear weapons, while stating that nuclear wars must not be fought.

The plan also addressed socio-economic issues such as facilitating grain exports, keeping industrial and supply chains stable, stopping unilateral sanctions and promoting post-conflict reconstruction.

Several of the points resonate with the African peace mission’s calls for “confidence-building measures” and substantial dialogue to end the conflict, including allowing humanitarian interventions, return or exchange of prisoners of war and comprehensive dialogue and negotiations over mutual security concerns.

At the time, Putin offered to carefully study the 12-point proposals, suggesting that the document offered a crucial path out of the conflict. Putin told Xi that Moscow had “carefully studied” the Chinese proposals, was “open to peace talks” and welcomed China’s “constructive role”, further suggesting that the Chinese plan could form the “basis” of an eventual peace agreement — “when the West and Ukraine are ready” for dialogue. Referring to the call between Xi and Zelenskyy, the Kremlin said it welcomed efforts to end the conflict with Ukraine.

After 14 months of raging conflict, with no indication of any path towards an exit out of the conflict, Xi held his first phone call with Zelenskyy. During the call, China emphasised that its core position was promoting peace talks. It promised to send a special envoy to Ukraine and hold talks with all parties in the conflict.

Writing on Twitter after the call with Xi, Zelenskyy characterised the talks as “long and meaningful”, stating: “I believe that this call, as well as the appointment of Ukraine’s ambassador to China, will give a powerful impetus to the development of our bilateral relations.” Xi ‘s call then marked the first known contact between Xi and Zelenskyy since the conflict in Ukraine began.

In Beijing last week, Putin hailed additional measures to the 12-point plan made public last month as “realistic and constructive steps” that “develop the idea of the necessity to overcome the Cold War mentality.”

Xi’s additional principles, set down in talks with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, call for a “cooling down” of the situation, creating conditions for restoring peace, creating stability and minimising the effects of the conflict on the world economy. The conflict in Ukraine has generated global economic shocks which have been severely felt, especially in poorer economies in the Global South, particularly Africa.

It is important to note that countries such as Brazil, China, South Africa and potentially Türkiye, which successfully negotiated the Ukraine grain deal also presented their proposals to end the war in Ukraine.

While the plurality of external international mediators and their interests could muddy the prospects of any internationally mediated settlement if such external interests prove to be asymmetrical, the views and positions emerging from the Global South are not irreconcilably different.

The countries could work closely with China to facilitate dialogue to end the conflict in Ukraine. Given their close bilateral and multilateral ties, they could use their untainted relations with Moscow to prevail on the need for peace and stability.

Brazil, China and South Africa, among other countries, have called for dialogue to end the conflict in Ukraine, given its egregiously disruptive global socio-economic impacts, violence and loss of life affecting Ukraine and Russia.

The success of recent Chinese-led mediation efforts in the Sudan in 2014, its successful efforts towards the normalisation of the Saudi-Iran relations and search for mediated dialogue to end the conflict in Palestine is evidence of a growing peace-oriented posture to ending conflicts and fostering peace and stability.

Even as Ukraine plans to hold a peace conference in Switzerland in mid-June, Zelenskyy has expended great efforts to persuade China to attend the peace summit. The summit, which aims to establish a forum for a high-level dialogue on ways to achieve a comprehensive, just and lasting peace for Ukraine, under international law and the UN Charter, will need the support of emerging powers whose voice increasingly matters in international affairs.

According to the organisers, the Ukraine Summit aims to create a common understanding of a framework favourable to this objective and a concrete roadmap for Russia’s participation in the peace process. Switzerland, the host of the planned conference, reportedly held talks with G7 member states, the EU and representatives of the Global South, including China, India, South Africa and Brazil, although Russia is not slated to participate, at least in the first part of the conference,

China has unequivocally stated that it would not provide military assistance to any of the conflict parties, underlining its neutrality. The Chinese peace plan marks the first major effort by a global power to broker peace to end the conflict in Ukraine. Although Türkiye was involved in some mediation efforts, its mediation eventually revolved around the resumption of grain exports from Ukraine.

Viewed holistically, Chinese efforts towards peace in Ukraine are gradually preparing for the right conditions and setting up the channels of communication with all the concerned parties.

If China were to eventually send a special representative to Ukraine to stay up to date with the evolving situation, its position and efforts would generate the necessary conditions for Beijing to be involved in direct peace negotiations in the future, with direct communication with Russia and Ukraine based on quiet, but robust diplomacy, quietly sowing the seeds of peace.

As expressed by French President Emmanuel Macron on his visit to Beijing, China has what it takes to help end the conflict in Ukraine.

Gideon Chitanga is a Post Doc Researcher at the Centre for Africa China Studies, University of Johannesburg.