China called for a cease-fire and peace talks between Ukraine and Russia on Friday, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy cautiously welcomed Beijing’s involvement — but said success would depend on actions not words.
Beijing claims to have a neutral stance in the war that began one year ago, but has also said it has a “no limits friendship” with Russia and has refused to criticize Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, or even refer to it as an invasion. It has accused the West of provoking the conflict and “fanning the flames” by providing Ukraine with defensive arms.
“I believe that the fact that China started talking about Ukraine is not bad,” Zelenskyy told a news conference Friday. “But the question is what follows the words. The question is in the steps and where they will lead to.”
The plan released by China’s Foreign Ministry mainly reiterated long-held positions, and analysts said Beijing would be an unlikely broker.
But some observers warned that Ukraine and its allies need to tread carefully, saying that rejection of what China sees as its peace overture could move Beijing closer toward providing arms to Russia instead.
Volodymyr Fesenko, head of the Kyiv-based Penta Center independent think tank, believes that Zelenskyy “will try to play with China… in order not to allow China and Russia to come closer together.”
“As long as China comes up with peacemaker initiatives, it will be forced to maintain neutrality and to abstain from supplying weapons and direct military assistance to Russia,” Fesenko told The Associated Press.
Ukraine also might see “a scenario in which China is at least pressuring Russia to contain the use of nuclear weapons and create a mechanism to control nuclear power plants in Ukraine,” he said.
For Beijing’s part, it needed to clarify its stance, whether or not Kyiv and Moscow pay much heed, said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Beijing’s Renmin University.
“China feels it necessary to repeat its self-perceived neutrality at this juncture, to save some international influence by not only criticizing NATO but also distinguishing itself from Russia’s behavior,” Shi said.
China’s proposal calls for the territorial integrity of all countries to be respected, but does not say what will happen to the regions Russia has occupied since the invasion. It also calls for an end to “unilateral” sanctions on Russia, indirectly criticizes the expansion of the NATO alliance, and condemns threats of nuclear force.
The proposal is “an attempt for public relations on the part of China,” said Li Mingjiang, a professor and international security expert at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University. “I’m not convinced that this policy is going to improve their credibility in being an honest broker.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry welcomed the proposal and said it shares China’s ideas, including the rejection of Western sanctions. At the same time, ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova reaffirmed Moscow’s demand for Ukraine to acknowledge Russia’s land gains, renounce its bid to join NATO and assume a neutral status, among other conditions for peace.
Ukraine has said it will not agree to any peace without the return of all its territory.
Zelenskyy’s adviser Mykhailo Podolyak tweeted that any peace plan that envisages only a ceasefire and allows Russia to continue occupying any part of Ukraine “isn’t about peace, but about freezing the war, Ukraine’s defeat, next stages of Russian genocide.”
Ukraine’s allies also expressed skepticism. U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said on CNN that his first reaction to the proposal was that “it could stop at point one, which is: Respect the sovereignty of all nations.”
He added: “This war could end tomorrow if Russia stopped attacking Ukraine and withdrew its forces…. This was a war of choice.”
German government spokesman Wolfgang Buchner said the Chinese proposal contained several important points, but was missing a key one: “first and foremost the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine.”
China abstained Thursday when the U.N. General Assembly approved a nonbinding resolution that calls for Russia to end hostilities in Ukraine and withdraw its forces.
Its 12-point peace proposal also urges measures to prevent attacks on civilians, keep nuclear facilities safe, establish humanitarian corridors and ensure the export of grain. It called for an end to the “Cold War mentality” — China’s standard term for what it regards as U.S. hegemony and maintenance of alliances such as NATO.
“Dialogue and negotiation are the only viable solution to the Ukraine crisis.” the proposal said. It offered no details on what form talks should take but said “China will continue to play a constructive role in this regard.”
Zelenskyy said Friday that his main goal was making sure China doesn’t supply weapons to Russia. And he expressed hope that China’s involvement could be useful in isolating Russia. “Our task is to gather everyone to isolate the one,” he said.
He also said he’d like to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping: “I believe that it will benefit our countries and the security of the world.”
China’s proposal comes as U.S.-China relations have hit a historic low over Taiwan, disputes over trade and technology, human rights, and China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea.
The U.S. recently said China may be preparing to provide Russia with military aid, an allegation that Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin called “nothing more than slander and smears.”