NICHOLAS SHUBITZ: China’s peace plan for Ukraine
The US believes rejection will prevent a diplomatic coup for Beijing and preserve US dominance
China’s proposed peace settlement for the Ukraine crisis has been dismissed in Western capitals. But why? The proposal includes respect for territorial integrity, an immediate ceasefire, the resumption of peace talks and the provision of humanitarian aid, all of which should be supported (“Engage the Beijing plan on ending the war in Ukraine”, March 1). Considering Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s willingness to consider the Chinese proposal, why then is the US so opposed to it?
With Russia gradually incorporating newly mobilised troops into its front-line forces, the Kremlin has said it does not feel the time is right to pursue China’s plan. One would think this creates a perfect opportunity for the US to isolate Russia by embracing China’s proposal. The US has been pressuring Beijing to join sanctions against Russia, so why the reluctance to work with Beijing now?
It might be that the US fears doing so will give China a diplomatic win. With the peace proposal China has positioned itself as a world leader in international diplomacy, in effect usurping a role the US believes should be reserved for itself. However, in rejecting the Chinese plan the US and Nato could be accused of choosing war with Russia ahead of peace for Ukraine, giving credence to Beijing’s claim that irresponsible Nato expansion was the primary cause of the conflict.
Aside from the US’s unwillingness to present a credible nonmilitary solution to the conflict, US diplomatic efforts in recent years have proven sketchy. The progress former president Barack Obama achieved with Iran was undermined by the Trump administration, while former president Donald Trump’s progress with North Korea has been undone by Biden. The world needs an influential actor to champion diplomatic solutions to global problems. If the US is unable or unwilling to fulfil this role, China has every right to do so.
The Chinese proposal also undermines a narrative being promoted by congressional Republicans who have argued that China benefits from a long war in Ukraine. Their theory is that an extended war will deplete US weapons stockpiles (as arms are sent to Ukraine) and ultimately undermine US military readiness to engage China in a conflict over Taiwan.
In reality, the Republicans have other reasons for championing a quick end to the conflict. Presenting support for Ukraine as a burden on US taxpayers and an example of what they call Biden’s “America Last” philosophy, they are trying to turn support for Ukraine into a critique of the Democrats’ handling of the US economy. Adding a China narrative to the mix is simply an attempt to obscure this motive.
Though the US is depleting its weapons stockpiles, the arms being sent to Ukraine are different from those that would feature most prominently in a conflict over Taiwan, and while China now benefits from imports of discounted Russian crude that used to flow to Europe, the inflation higher energy prices have engendered worldwide has led to higher interest rates and a slower global economy, which is bad for China’s export-driven economy. Ultimately, China benefits more from a peaceful resolution, both economically and politically, especially in leading a process to achieve this objective.
Ukraine will need hundreds of billions of dollars to rebuild the country after the war. The Chinese, who have the financial resources to assist, may have quietly indicated a willingness to help Ukraine rebuild its civilian infrastructure if it returns to the negotiating table. This, of course, would give China enormous influence in the future Ukrainian state and is something we’ve already seen in Afghanistan after US troops were withdrawn.
Perhaps this is the real reason the US is reluctant to entertain the Chinese proposal. Just as the US has looked to replace Russian energy exports to Europe with its own, its desire to keep China out of Europe has become obvious. The US state department has applied pressure on European countries to sever economic ties with China (as seen with the rollout of 5G networks). Similarly, having Chinese state-owned construction companies rebuild Ukraine is certainly not a welcome development in the context of Washington’s foreign policy agenda.
The only other reason the US may have for rejecting the Chinese proposal is that it does not want the war to end in anything but a Russian defeat. But of three possible scenarios — a Russian victory, a negotiated settlement, and a Russian defeat — the latter is the least likely because Russia has nuclear weapons, and the US has already set a precedent for using them.
Realistically, the US is fully aware of this and is probably hoping Russia is restricted to achieving a pyrrhic victory in Ukraine — an outcome where the Kremlin can only claim to have accomplished some of its stated war aims, while Russia is weakened to the point where it is unable to effectively challenge Nato. In many respects this has already been tacitly acknowledged by the Pentagon.
All in all, the US believes rejecting China’s proposal will prevent Beijing from achieving a diplomatic coup, preserve US dominance over Europe, and see the continuation of a war to exhaust Russia at any price (including the destruction of Ukraine). This is a remarkably cynical posture considering the situation on the ground. Millions have been displaced, tens of thousands have died, Kyiv’s forces are under severe pressure in the Donbas, and Ukraine has already lost strategically important territories.
Considering the global ramifications of the conflict a diplomatic resolution would be by far the best outcome for everyone. This includes Ukraine, which would do better to negotiate with China on the side than continue to gamble on a miraculous victory against a newly enlarged Russian army.
• Shubitz is an independent Brics analyst
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