China's 12-point peace plan, explained
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba greets Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi on the sidelines of the Munich Conference, 19 February 2023 (photo via Chinese MFA)
On the one year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Chinese government published a document entitled, “China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis.” Touted as its proposal for ending hostilities between Russia and Ukraine, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs presented a 12-point peace plan calling for a ceasefire, consideration of Russian security interests, humanitarian provisions for Ukraine, prisoner exchanges, and the removal of unilateral sanctions, among other things.
So far, the proposal has drawn mixed reviews. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz argued that it is not a viable peace plan because it does not call for the withdrawal of Russian forces from Ukraine. Analysts claim that this is nothing more than a means for absolving China of blame for not doing more to halt Russian aggression. Only the government of Kazakhstan has published its support for the proposal. As for the warring parties themselves, both have avoided issuing formal government responses.
So, what exactly is included in China’s proposal, and what is its utility, if any, in advancing the peace process? To understand the document, it is necessary to examine the twelve specific points it covers and to diagnose problem areas in the proposal. From there, one can begin to understand what to make of its potential implications.
Breaking down the twelve points
Unlike the Zelensky administration’s “Ukrainian Peace Formula” published last year, the unilateral Chinese proposal focuses less on areas for negotiation than basic principles which would underpin the peace process. The Chinese government’s twelve points are as follows.
1) “Respecting the sovereignty of all countries.” Beijing calls for the uniform application of international law in addressing the sources of conflict between Russia and Ukraine. The government argues that “double standards must be rejected.” There is ambiguity at play in what this really means, as Chinese interlocutors could equally argue to Russian counterparts that they left room for accepting Russia’s claims over illegally annexed territories as they could to Ukrainian officials that they are pushing Russia to yield territorial or other concessions.
2) “Abandoning the Cold War mentality.” Here, the Chinese government takes aim at NATO expansion, claiming that “all parties should oppose the pursuit of one’s own security at the cost of others’ security, prevent bloc confrontation, and work together for peace and stability on the Eurasian Continent.” This parrots one of the core talking points for the Putin regime since the outset of the invasion.
3) “Ceasing hostilities.” Beijing argues that all parties should foster conditions that enable the resumption of ceasefire negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. Their stated intent is to achieve a gradual de-escalation of the war until the parties to conflict can negotiate and conclude a comprehensive ceasefire agreement.
4) “Resuming peace talks.” Substantive ceasefire negotiations between Russia and Ukraine stalled following the discovery of Russian war crimes in April 2022, but the Chinese government asserts that it wants to play a “constructive role” in efforts to resume negotiations. Beijing calls upon the international community to promote peace talks by creating space for diplomacy and mechanisms for dialogue.
5) “Resolving the humanitarian crisis.” The Chinese government declares that the parties should prioritize humanitarian operations following the principles of neutrality and impartiality. They call for the establishment of humanitarian corridors for civilian evacuations from conflict zones and greater effort for delivering humanitarian aid to impacted areas.
6) “Protecting civilians and prisoners of war (POWs).” Beijing calls upon the parties to conflict to abide by international law, avoiding attacks on civilian facilities or personnel, protecting innocents, and giving humane treatment to POWs. They advocate for continued exchange of prisoners. The most interesting aspect of this point is that Beijing is articulating a recognition of the state of warfare that exists between Russia and Ukraine (e.g., the use of the term “POWs” instead of prisoners or detainees), even if the Chinese government refuses to acknowledge it elsewhere.
7) “Keeping nuclear power plants safe.” The Chinese government advocates for all parties to comply with the Convention on Nuclear Safety and avoid manmade nuclear disasters. They voice their support for the International Atomic Energy Agency’s role in addressing safety and security issues at nuclear facilities affected by the war.
8) “Reducing strategic risks.” With this point, China both signals its intent to restrain Russia while offering the Putin regime a key concession. They declare that employment of nuclear weapons must be off the table–a threat that Putin has used to limit the efforts by NATO allies and the rest of the international community for fear of nuclear escalation. While that may perturb Moscow, the Chinese then allude to research and development associated with chemical and biological weapons, a nod to Russia’s unsubstantiated claims regarding clandestine Ukrainian laboratories operated in cahoots with the United States.
9) “Facilitating grain exports.” China offers its support for the four-party “Black Sea Grain Initiative” (signed by Russia, Türkiye, Ukraine and the UN), calling for its continued implementation. Meanwhile, Beijing states that its proposed “cooperation initiative on global food security” provides an alternative solution to the global food security crisis.
10) “Stopping unilateral sanctions.” Beijing asserts that “unilateral sanctions and maximum pressure cannot solve the issue,” declaring that the government opposed any sanctions not authorized by the UN Security Council. The proposal insinuates that such sanctions were escalating the conflict and negatively impacting developing countries.
11) “Keeping industrial and supply chains stable.” The Chinese government asserts that all parties must mitigate the impact that the war is having on the global economic system. They state that “joint efforts are needed” to prevent disruption to international cooperation in energy, finance, food trade, and transportation, as well as the undermining of global economic recovery.
12) “Promoting post-conflict reconstruction.” Beijing states that the international community must take measures to support reconstruction in conflict zones (without specifying a side). China declares that it is ready to provide assistance and play a constructive role in this endeavor.
Problems with China's proposal
Given that China’s peace plan was less a “plan” and more a list of policy positions, its structural flaws will make it difficult to employ in mediation efforts. Even without those structural limitations, there were seven key issues that would cause the warring parties to dismiss the document outright while likely reducing trust in China’s capacity to serve as a viable partner in any future peace process.
The first problem is China’s labeling of the war as the “Ukraine Crisis.” While a good faith mediator might avoid terming the conflict, “Russia’s wanton war of aggression,” it is necessary to acknowledge both parties involved in the hostilities. The easiest compromise language would have been to call it the “Russia-Ukraine Conflict.”
Second, the proposal calls for upholding the sovereignty of “all countries.” Absent a demand for Russian withdrawal, this leaves the door open for ceding illegally annexed territories to Russia. This point violates an indispensable interest for the Zelensky administration and appears to call for a major concession before ever reaching the negotiating table.
Third, China is accepting the Russian claim that the invasion was prompted by Western expansion. Stating that Ukraine must consider “the legitimate security interests and concerns of all countries” rings hollow for a nation that has been fighting for its survival the past year.
Fourth, the proposal gives credence to Russia’s unsubstantiated claims of Ukrainian weapons of mass destruction. The Chinese proposal backs Russian accusations that Ukraine has been operating clandestine chemical/biological weapons development facilities on its soil. This is one of the many unsubstantiated justifications Russia has used for its invasion, including arguments such as its need to “de-Nazify” the country.
Fifth, the proposal calls for removal of all unilateral sanctions. By arguing that the only valid sanctions are those that have been authorized by the UN Security Council, Beijing is in effect advocating for the elimination of a key tool for managing Russian escalation. Since Russia has veto power in the UN Security Council, the Chinese position is essentially calling for the lifting of all sanctions against the Putin regime.
Sixth, the peace plan is unabashedly self-interested in its calls for protecting the global economy. As an export-driven economic power, the Chinese government clearly has a stake in the outcomes of the war, and they bared those interests in this document.
Finally, the Chinese proposal ignores the fact that the Ukrainians have already published a 10-point “Ukrainian Peace Formula.” There are certain issue areas from the Ukrainian side which are absent from the Chinese proposal, meaning that Beijing is advocating for the abandonment of some key interests before ever reaching the proposed negotiating table.
Ultimately, China’s 12-point peace plan violates some core principles of effective mediation by doing the following:
• Privileging one’s own interests
• Empowering bad faith arguments and behaviors
• Eliminating or undermining tools for managing escalation
• Failing to preserve a party’s indispensable interests
Although China has signaled its intent to be an arbiter in the conflict, the 12-point peace plan does not offer a viable foundation for engagement.
Impact to the peace process
So, what does this all mean for the effort to end hostilities between Russia and Ukraine? It is clear that the 12-point peace plan is not actionable, but there are still three notable impacts.
The first is that it illustrated a seam between Beijing and Moscow. The fact that the Putin regime has not co-opted the Chinese peace plan is telling. Were it aligned with Moscow’s policy designs, the Kremlin could have latched onto it to legitimize its war efforts. Instead, it identifies a notable gap between Beijing and Moscow–one that might yield a policy window for ensuring that China becomes a net positive in addressing Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the peace plan signals China’s interests to Ukraine. Although some Ukrainian officials have voiced displeasure with the proposal via social media, the Zelensky administration has remained polite in its formal commentary. This is largely because Ukraine expects China to play a role in restraining Russian escalation, providing postwar security guarantees for Ukraine, and supporting reconstruction of war torn areas. Despite the proposal’s limited utility towards a ceasefire, it will help inform bilateral negotiations between Ukraine and China towards those other ends.
The most negative impact of China’s peace proposal is that it further divides the international community. The day before Beijing published its 12-point peace plan, the UN General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a resolution outlining its own principles for peace between Russia and Ukraine. Instead of using its influence as the number two economy in the world and permanent member of the UN Security Council to rally support for a General Assembly-passed resolution, China is now asking other countries to back its own unilateral positions. This has the potential for widening rather than narrowing the divide in the international community’s efforts for addressing the Russia-Ukraine War.
There is no doubt that China could play a greater role in bringing an end to war. China has institutionalized power inside the UN system. They have economic leverage over the Putin regime and Russia’s other partners. At the same time, they maintain friendly diplomatic relations with Ukraine, going as far as concluding the “Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation Between China and Ukraine” in 2013. Ultimately, the tools are there, but the 12-point peace plan is a flawed manual for how to use them.