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China’s ‘peace plan’ for Ukraine is a Trojan horse for Beijing and Moscow

Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File
FILE – Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, and Russian President Vladimir Putin talk to each other during their meeting in Beijing, China on Feb. 4, 2022. Just weeks before the Feb. 24, 2022, invasion, Xi hosted Putin in Beijing for the opening of the Winter Olympics, at which time the sides issued a joint statement pledging their commitment to a “no limits” friendship. China has since ignored Western criticism and reaffirmed that pledge, underscoring how the two countries have aligned their foreign policies to oppose the liberal international world order led by the United States and its democratic allies.

China’s so-called peace proposal in Ukraine demonstrates the degree to which Beijing and Moscow remain in full coordination. When combined with China’s possible arms transfers to Russia, and recent revelations of Chinese surveillance overflights within U.S. airspace, it becomes apparent that China believes the current war advances its interests — that is, that a Russian victory is entirely relevant to China’s strategy.

American policymakers should note China’s carefully calibrated language, intended to drive fissures between the U.S. and its Western European allies in the long term.

The Chinese proposal is not precisely disingenuous. It appears so at first blush, when China commits to “Respecting the sovereignty of all countries,” including “territorial integrity,” through the United Nations charter’s framing. Russia’s invasion in 2014 undeniably violated Ukrainian territorial integrity, as did its Feb. 24, 2022, invasion. However, China sidesteps defining borders; Ukraine’s “territorial integrity” changed with Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, Zaporizhzhia, Kherson and Donbas regions. China takes no position on Ukrainian or Russian borders, apart from vague gestures towards sovereign equality between states regardless of their power and wealth.

Yet it is the second clause in China’s plan that explains the first, and indeed all subsequent clauses in the document. China opposes a “cold war mentality,” specifically, a cold war “strengthening or expanding military blocs” through which states pursue “one’s own security at the cost of others’ security.” This is not targeted at Russia, as it might appear upon first reading. It is targeted at NATO, the Cold War’s first military bloc which predates the Warsaw Pact by more than six years.

NATO’s defining feature is its non-Eurasian nature. European, Asian and Middle Eastern powers have always made and broken alliances during strategic competition. Some of these alliances were truly Eurasian — medieval France, for example, forged alliances with the Abbasid Caliphate, the Mongol Empire and the Ottoman Sultanate at various points; the British allied with Japan in 1902, linking Eurasia’s two insular powers.

The Eurasian element, which the Chinese text employs, is critical. International competition has been Eurasian since around the 17th century; only Europe’s preponderance of power until 1945 disguises this fact. The objective of international rivalry is to control Eurasian trade, manipulating the relationship between Eurasia’s heartland productive capacities and its rimland maritime chokepoints.

The 20th century’s Cold War remained Eurasian. The focal point of U.S.-Soviet competition was Europe, and the stakes of strategic control were European, Middle Eastern and Asian. But the Cold War’s defining strategic factor was American participation. Soviet Russia objected to America — a non-European power — serving as a major strategic force in European affairs through NATO, undergirded by U.S. military strength. Similarly, China’s accusation of cold war mentality cannot apply to Russia because, by definition, Russia is a Eurasian power. It applies only to America, the non-Eurasian power that still takes an interest — unjustified, in China’s view — in Eurasian strategic affairs.

Every subsequent proposal in the Chinese peace plan flows from this premise. The substance of each recommendation — peace talks, nuclear power plant protection, continued grain exports — is irrelevant. The framing is key: “All parties must support Russia and Ukraine” — that is, all parties should leave a Eurasian issue to be solved by Eurasians. “Humanitarian issues should not be politicized” — that is, the war’s human cost stems from American involvement, so it matters little where refugees find refuge. “Unilateral sanctions and maximum pressure cannot solve the issue” because those unilateral (meaning “American”) sanctions are tools of a non-Eurasian power.

Thus has China demonstrated its complete support for Russia.

The Kremlin launched this war to subjugate Ukraine and, in turn, use its conquest as a springboard to resurrect a Soviet-style imperial system with the resources, population, economic potential and strategic depth to challenge the U.S.-backed security order directly. Russia’s long-term goal remains the U.S.’s ejection from the European security system, specifically through NATO’s collapse.

China endorses this goal wholeheartedly because it seeks the same objective in the Indo-Pacific. U.S. influence permeates Europe, Asia and the Middle East. If China is to achieve its Indo-Pacific objective, breaking the U.S.’s Asian alliances and driving its military footprint back to Hawaii, then it must undermine U.S. power in Eurasia as a whole.

China and Russia are aligned in their desired end-states. In effect, China holds the same theory of victory as Russia, even if it finds it expedient to manipulate Russia, hollow out its economy, and gain preferential access to Russian energy resources as the war drags on.

This should come as no surprise, given the Russia-China “No Limits” memorandum of Feb. 4, 2022, which stated the same points, and before which China was undoubtedly informed of the impending invasion of Ukraine. China’s President Xi Jinping has not once contradicted this memorandum in public statements, and he has effectively reaffirmed it in his Peace Proposal.

Three implications follow.

First, China will arm Russia, perhaps not with traditional military equipment but, at minimum, with drones and spare parts to intensify its combat effectiveness. Considering the character of combat in Ukraine, this aid is lethal and will sustain the Russian defense industrial base, as it has done through conduits like Iran, Armenia and Kazakhstan.

Second, China has no desire to put forward a genuine peace proposal or serve as an interlocutor to end this war. The United States pursues an illusion in seeking a “China card” to restrain or modify Russia, much like it must abandon any expectation of a “Russia card” to improve its strategic position in Asia — at least for the foreseeable future. At some point, Moscow and Beijing will diverge, as inevitable friction increases in Central Asia, as the Kremlin chafes at being the junior partner in its dance with China, and other domestic factors muddy the relationship. But as in the first Cold War, there are few to no ways in which the U.S. and its allies can spur on the divorce. Until it occurs organically, both China and Russia must be opposed.

Third, and most dangerous, China’s Peace Proposal is an olive branch to Europe as much as it is a statement of support to Russia. Russia’s concerns in Ukraine can be understood to stem from opposition to American presence in Eurasia; Russia deems Ukraine’s security interests as illegitimate, insofar as they are perceived to benefit American security interests. A Ukraine with an objective, material understanding of its reality (to borrow from Marxist parlance) would never align with the United States, or so Putin thinks.

In turn, Europeans are being given a signal: Germany, and the European Union in general, have a place in a post-American Eurasia if they accept Chinese leadership and join Russia in throwing off non-Eurasian involvement. China leaves its hand outstretched to the Berlin-Brussels-Paris axis; some sort of strategic autonomy, it is signaled, remains viable.

Whether or not European powers accept the Chinese offer hinges on only one factor in the immediate future — the relative balance of forces in Europe and Asia. The U.S. must both sustain Ukraine through this war and ensure Ukraine wins this war, and thus deter China from moving on Taiwan. If it cannot do both, European powers will crack.

Seth Cropsey is founder and president of Yorktown Institute. He served as a naval officer and as deputy undersecretary of the Navy and is the author of “Mayday: The Decline of American Naval Supremacy” (2013) and “Seablindness: How Political Neglect Is Choking American Seapower and What to Do About It” (2017).

Tags arms transfer China China peace proposal China-US relations China–United States relations Chinese aggression Chinese influence Chinese military Eurasia Europe European Union Foreign relations of China NATO Russia Russia-China relations Russian military Russian war in Ukraine US-China tensions Western military aid to Ukraine Western sanctions on Russia Xi Jinping

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