By Matthias E. Leitner
Precarious Conflict Trajectory – Russia and Ukraine are preparing for a spring offensive with higher levels of military involvement. Spill-over into the region has been avoided so far, despite several drone attacks on Russian bases in occupied Crimea and in western Russia as well as the bombing of Kerch Bridge that connects Crimea with Russia’s Taman peninsula in October 2022, one day after President Putin’s 70th birthday. It is not excluded that intensifying conflict or a costly prolonged stalemate can lead to escalation and actively involve NATO or one of the front-line states with Ukraine.
Prospects for peace talks between the conflict parties are remote after two initiatives from Türkiye in spring 2022. A credible, neutral intermediary with convening power is lacking, although there have been two larger prisoner exchanges between Ukraine and Russia in February, and another swap of over 200 prisoners of war occurred on 7 March 2023. The Black Sea Grain Initiative (BSGI) brokered by the UN and Türkiye is still operational (UNCTAD, 2023), albeit at a relatively slow pace. Its extension from 18 March onwards is uncertain beyond 60 days after a recent meeting of UN and the conflict parties in Geneva.
Global South Actors on the Side-lines – Influential countries such as Brazil, India and Indonesia in the Global South have generally avoided taking sides in the conflict and stayed away from polarization. 32 countries chose to abstain from the 23 February UN General Assembly Resolution on Ukraine that demanded Russian troop withdrawal and condemned the aggression against Ukraine. Powerful G20 members India and South Africa were among them. India blocked a final statement mentioning Russia’s aggression against Ukraine at the 25 February meeting of G20 foreign ministers that it hosted.
Considering failings in traditional diplomacy and conflict resolution for Ukraine, the contribution from Global South actors becomes more pressing and relevant, especially since they continue to be affected by global effects from the war. The UN Global Crisis Response Group (GCRG) has tracked cumulative shocks in food security, energy prices and inflation since March 2022 (UNSDG, 2022). In particular, the lagged effect from spiking fertilizer costs which rose by 199% from May 2020 to the end of 2022 has been a constraint on global food production, including rice growing in many developing countries and emerging economies of the Global South (Broom, 2023). Russia is a major fertilizer producer and exporter. Eminent academics and advisers such as Prof. Jeffrey Sachs and former German diplomat and previous director of the Munich Security Conference (MSC) Wolfgang Ischinger have argued that the Global South and China can play a constructive role in helping to bring peace to Ukraine. Countries with populist leanings such as Brazil, Mexico and South Africa also have legacy relationships with China dating from the Soviet Union era (Brown, 2013). The recent agreement facilitated in Beijing between Saudi Arabia and Iran with major repercussions for the Middle East (Turak, 2023) makes it necessary to take a closer look at potentials in the Chinese 12-Point Position on Ukraine.
China’s Significance and Reactions from Key Stakeholders
China officially presented its 12-Point Position on peace in Ukraine on 24 February 2023, the anniversary of Russia’s invasion. The Position is China’s first public step in favour of peace in Ukraine after a period of half neutrality where much attention was given to strategic ties with Russia. China had declared its “no-limits partnership” with Russia just before the outbreak of the war and refrained from condemning the invasion. Bilateral economic ties deepened through more oil imports from Russia that replaced Saudi Arabia as main oil provider to China. Bilateral trade reached a record USD 190 billion in 2022 and Yuan-denominated transactions increased significantly on the Russian market in efforts to evade western sanctions. Beijing kept Moscow apprised of the 12 Points prior to their release and its top foreign policy official Wang Yi was received not only by his counterpart Lavrov but also by President Vladimir Putin. On 22 February, Russia stated it welcomed China taking a more active role in efforts to resolve the conflict in Ukraine and said it valued China’s “balanced approach”.
The Position serves to position China as a peace-loving country and reminds Russia and the US as fellow UN Security Council members about their obligations to pursue peaceful courses of action. It also deflects criticism that China has ignored the Ukraine conflict. China had released principles for global peace in its Global Security Initiative (GSI) ahead of its Position on Ukraine. The intention was to communicate China’s vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security, according to the Chinese MFA. Notably, the 12 Points balance respect for territorial integrity with legitimate security interests of countries, rejection of Cold War mentality and military alliances as well as criticizing the use of non-UN sanctions. While this is directed at NATO and the US, China’s Position not only rejects the use of nuclear arms but also the threat of doing so, which is aimed at Russia.
Reactions from the West to the 12 Points were largely sceptical, with the US showing the most consistent and adverse reactions from the moment the Chinese Peace Plan was first mentioned at the Munich Security Conference. US mistrust and competition with China for global dominance coloured the US view, compounded by fears that China might exploit the US distraction in Ukraine for advancing against Taiwan. The US State Secretary spoke repeatedly of alleged Chinese military support being readied for Russia and senior US officials including President Joseph Biden pursued this line, questioning the basic credibility of China’s Position on Ukraine. Experts at the leading bi-partisan US Institute of Peace (USIP) agreed that the Chinese Position was unlikely to advance the cause of peace (Freeman and Glantz, 2023). Conservative commentators in the US saw Washington outflanked by the Chinese peace proposal which is designed to highlight US unreliability in a multipolar era (Brown, 2023).
In Europe, reactions from Germany and the EU were slightly more nuanced between disappointment and caution but seemed at least to give consideration to China’s Position on Ukraine. China’s top foreign policy official undertook a regional diplomatic tour to Germany, Italy, France, Hungary and Belarus ahead of the 12-Point launch. Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock stated in New York that China as a member of the UN Security Council had an obligation to come out in favour of peace and a UN umbrella would have been preferable for the Chinese Position. German expert commentators saw an attempt by China to divide the EU and the US (Legarda, 2023). The EU was guarded in its reaction while looking at the 12 Points from the perspective that China had taken sides, according to EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. She also commented that China had not shared a peace plan but some principles. Further EU reactions aligned themselves closer with the US position.
EU member state Hungary openly welcomed the Chinese Position on Ukraine. Despite misgivings about the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative in the European neighbourhood (Bastian, 2022), the EU is in principle interested in reducing economic and trade disruptions from the conflict in Ukraine. Points 11 and 12 of China’s Ukraine Position speak to this shared interest including for reconstruction of Ukraine. The USD 349 billion estimated reconstruction cost requires a broad global effort where China could also engage. Eurasian rail transport links are still functioning for shipments of critical rare metals that are now even more in demand in EU defence industries (Tirone and Nardelli, 2023). Interlinked with the broader Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) network of trans-continental transport infrastructures, only part of the traffic has switched from the Northern Corridor through Russia to the Middle Corridor through Central Asia and the Caucasus to Türkiye and onward destinations in Europe (Standish, 2022). These freight links are important for speeding up substantial reconstruction efforts and reliable functioning of supply chains. Before the 2022 Russian invasion, Ukraine took an interest in the BRI and became a critical piece of the Initiative (Brown, 2023).
Accelerating Diplomatic Impacts – Following the release of China’s 12 Points, there has been a perceptible shift in diplomatic activity surrounding the conflict, most clearly in the European theatre nearer to Ukraine. The President of Ukraine expressed interest in meeting with his Chinese counterpart. He also stated that it was generally good that China started talking about Ukraine. Ukraine tabled its own 10-Point Peace Plan at the G20 Summit in Indonesia last November. The President of Belarus accepted an invitation for a state visit to Beijing where he met with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on 1 March. Canada’s Foreign Minister stated to media on 10 March that Canada had approached China about speaking also with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and not only with Russia during the recent G20 meeting. President Macron of France announced that he was planning to visit China in early April. These leaders’ visits are far from deliberately sequenced and offer no guarantee against possible military escalation. Yet they foster an environment that is more conducive to dialogue and discourage excessive steps in the conflict.
In media comments on 7 March, the Kremlin’s spokesman explained that a big, powerful and authoritative country like China could not fail to have its own voice on problems high on the world agenda. He added that Moscow paid great attention to all the ideas from their colleagues in Beijing. President Xi Jinping’s first state visit after his re-election for an unprecedented third term in office was confirmed for Moscow from 20 to 22 March, following an invitation from President Putin. In the context of this visit, China’s Foreign Minister spoke with his counterpart in Ukraine and urged Kyiv and Moscow to restart peace talks as soon as possible, while the importance of Ukraine’s territorial integrity reportedly featured in this exchange, in reference to the very first Point of the Chinese Position.
Global South Confidence Building Outlook
Apart from the accelerated general diplomatic tempo, China’s Position also provides an impulse to non-aligned countries in the Global South about becoming more engaged for peace in Ukraine. While political apace remains severely constrained to act as mediators, these countries can rally in new ways to build confidence between Russia and Ukraine. Brazilian President Lula da Silva already conveyed Brazil’s desire to talk with other countries and participate in any initiative related to building peace and dialogue when speaking with his Ukrainian counterpart in early March. He is scheduled to visit China and Russia and is on record as proposing the involvement of more neutral global players to end the war in Ukraine.
It remains to be seen if the Global South will configure diplomacy as peace positive engagement, e.g. in the format of a consultative contact group, or agree to China as convener for initial confidence building steps. For instance, China’s Ukraine Position is explicit specific about implementing the Black Sea Grain Initiative (Point 9), which has resulted in the export of 25 million tons of food and agricultural produce as of 15 March 2023, according to UN data. Ukraine recently declared readiness for scaling up the BSGI by adding new ports, after criticizing lack of Russian cooperation in ship inspections.
There is space for further non-traditional confidence building measures and scaling them. Facilitation of Russian fertilizer exports, including with UN guarantees about fair trade practices, or environmental war damages reduction and clean-up in the heavily industrialized Donbass region are possible areas. Environmental Peacebuilding (EP) approaches are already tested and available (Barnhoorn and Krampe, 2022). Using labour-intensive methods and skills development with modern technology from China as enabler, human capital in Ukraine and Russia can be jointly strengthened and pave the way for gradual normalization and recovery. These non-traditional confidence building measures are useful for creating a conducive environment to bilateral military talks and lessening fighting in certain front-line sectors ahead of a general cease fire. Starting to move the dial back from warfare to gradual conflict reduction is within reach but the time window for bringing meaningful Global South contributions to the table may be rapidly closing.
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*Matthias E. Leitner currently serves as Analyst and Knowledge Management Lead in the Crises and Fragility Team of OECD GPP Directorate