China launched its 12-point position paper to end the war in Ukraine on the first anniversary of Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine. Some, including the United States, the European Union and NATO have dismissed what they call China’s peace plan as pro-Russian. The US further claimed that “China is seriously exploring supplying arms to Russia.” China has categorically denied the US claims and consistently maintained that it “will continue firmly standing on the side of dialogue and the side of peace.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky reacted differently, saying that he “wanted to believe that Beijing was interested in a fair peace.” He cautiously welcomed the plan on the condition that it includes Russia’s withdrawal “from all occupied Ukrainian territory.”
With China’s recent success in brokering talks in the Middle East, can China’s push for a political settlement in Ukraine be viewed in a new light?
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, appears to be the result of many miscalculations. He thought that Kyiv would fall within days; that Zelensky would flee; and that the US and its NATO allies would fail to unite. Putin’s biggest miscalculation, however, may have been his expectation that Chinese President Xi Jinping would stand with him against the West. After all, shortly before his troops marched into Ukraine, Putin issued a joint statement with Xi announcing that their countries’ friendship had “no limits.” Nonetheless, while China has not explicitly condemned Russia’s aggression or boycotted its oil and natural gas, it has not directly supported Putin in his war in Ukraine — at least not yet.
To the contrary, China not only abstained on the Security Council’s Uniting for Peace resolution, which referred the invasion of Ukraine to the General Assembly, China has also abstained on five of the six resolutions adopted by the 11th emergency special session of the Assembly in the last year. The overwhelming majority of the 193 member-body has strongly deplored Russia’s aggression in Ukraine as well as its illegal annexation of parts of eastern Ukraine. In so doing, China has consistently stated that “the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all countries should be respected” and that “the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations should be observed.”
Similarly, four of the most salient points of China’s 12-point plan are devoted to upholding international law and the UN Charter.
• Point 1 refers to the “sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries,” which by definition includes Ukraine in its internationally recognized borders.
• Point 6 calls for strict compliance with international humanitarian law; protection of women, children and other victims of the conflict; avoidance of collateral damage to civilians or civilian facilities; and respect for the basic rights of prisoners of war. While all parties to the conflict must respect international humanitarian law, the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Ukraine concluded in its October 2022 report that the “Russian armed forces are responsible for the vast majority of the violations identified.”
• Point 7 reaffirms the legal prohibition of attacks against nuclear power plants and other peaceful nuclear facilities; this may contain an implicit reprimand of Russia, whose forces attacked and seized the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in October 2022.
• Point 8 is unequivocal in its opposition to the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons and categorical in its imperative of preventing nuclear nonproliferation. China must be aware that as far as the conflict in Ukraine is concerned, only Putin “has raised the specter of using a nuclear weapon.” China must also have noted that two days before it issued its position paper, Putin announced that Russia was suspending its participation in the New START treaty with the US. Point 8 may therefore put China in opposition to Russia’s posture.
• On the military front, Point 3 calls for a “cessation of hostilities” and Point 4 states that “dialogue and negotiation are the only viable solution to the Ukraine crisis.” While the European Commission has dismissed these points as “blurring the role of aggressor and aggressed,” they could be China’s way of cautioning Russia to pursue political rather than military solutions to its political grievances and security concerns.
• On the political front, Point 2 calls on all parties to “abandon the Cold War mentality.” China could be telling Russia that its security “should not be pursued at the expense of others” (presumably a reference to the nation and people of Ukraine), while at the same time it could be reminding the US and its NATO allies that the “legitimate security interests and concerns of all countries must be taken seriously and addressed properly” (presumably a reference to Russia’s security concerns about NATO’s expansion).
• The only clear rebuke to the US and the EU is Point 10, where China reiterates its longstanding opposition to unilateral sanctions and “maximum pressure” strategies — a point that goes well beyond the conflict in Ukraine.
• The rest of China’s 12-point plan is largely devoted to humanitarian and economic concerns shared by the US and Europe, including Point 5, on easing the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine; Point 9, on implementing the Black Sea Grain Initiative to avert a global food crisis; Point 10, on maintaining stable supply chains to support a global economic recovery; and Point 12, on promoting post-conflict reconstruction in Ukraine.
In this light, China’s 12-point plan is not necessarily pro-Putin or pro-Russia. It can be viewed as a genuine call for peace and the rule of international law. Nonetheless, the plan lacks the practical steps on how to end the war and how to compel the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine. It is also silent on accountability for all the war crimes that continue to be committed as well as compensation or other reparations for the Ukrainian civilians killed and injured and the civilian infrastructure destroyed in the aggression and occupation by Russia. As such, the Chinese plan is not likely to achieve either peace or justice for Ukraine.
Mona Ali Khalil is an internationally recognized public international lawyer with 25 years of UN and other experience, including as a former senior legal officer in the UN and in the IAEA, with expertise in peacekeeping, peace enforcement, disarmament and counterterrorism. She holds a B.A. and an M.A. in international relations from Harvard University and a master’s in foreign service and a J.D. from Georgetown University. She is an affiliate of the Harvard Law School Program on International Law and Armed Conflict. She is the founder and director of MAK LAW INTERNATIONAL, an advisory and strategic consulting service assisting governments and intergovernmental organizations in the service of “We the Peoples.”