China has called for a ceasefire in the war in Ukraine and a return to negotiations as Beijing attempts to position itself as a peacemaker in the conflict on the first anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.
However, western leaders immediately called into question China’s motives, accusing Beijing of having already taken Russia’s side in the war.
The Chinese foreign ministry on Friday released a 12-point paper outlining its position on a “political settlement” to the war, though many of the measures reiterated Beijing’s previous talking points.
Chinese diplomats have engaged in a difficult balancing act over the war, seeking to appear neutral despite Beijing’s close ties to Moscow while also blaming Washington and Nato for provoking the conflict.
“Dialogue and negotiation are the only viable solution to the Ukraine crisis,” the foreign ministry said in the document, which did not directly describe it as a war. “All efforts conducive to the peaceful settlement of the crisis must be encouraged and supported.”
The heads of Nato and the European Commission said the proposal was tainted by Beijing’s failure to condemn Russia’s invasion.
“We will look at the principles, of course, but we will look at them against the backdrop that China has taken sides,” said Ursula von der Leyen, commission president. “It is not a peace plan.”
Jens Stoltenberg, secretary-general of Nato, said: “China does not have much credibility because they have not been able to condemn the illegal invasion of Ukraine.”
But German president Frank-Walter Steinmeier said: “We very much welcome any constructive proposal bringing us closer to a fair and just peace.” He called for Beijing to engage with Kyiv as well as Moscow.
Beijing’s ceasefire plan is also unlikely to receive support in Kyiv until Russia withdraws from the territories it has occupied, an issue that was not addressed in the 12-point position paper.
Zhanna Leshchynska, charge d’affaires of Ukraine’s embassy in Beijing, ruled out a ceasefire that would freeze the conflict along the present front line.
“Our view is that Russia should unconditionally withdraw all of its forces from the territory of Ukraine,” she told reporters in Beijing on Friday, adding that this meant the country’s internationally recognised borders, which include Crimea.
Leshchynska said China should demonstrate its neutrality by pushing Russia to withdraw its troops and increasing engagement with Ukraine. China’s leader Xi Jinping has not called Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy since Russia’s invasion but has spoken with Russian president Vladimir Putin several times.
Shi Yinhong, a professor at Renmin University, said Beijing was probably aware that neither side would heed its proposal. “China feels [it] necessary to repeat its neutrality on the war at this juncture to save some international influence by not only criticising Nato but also distinguishing itself from Russia’s behaviour,” he said.
Wang Yi, China’s top diplomat, appeared to make little headway in pushing the proposals on Wednesday when he met Putin.
Beijing’s paper also warned against the use of nuclear weapons in the war and called for Ukraine’s nuclear power plants to be protected. It also demanded a halt to sanctions that have not been authorised by the UN Security Council, a reference to penalties imposed by western nations.
The peace proposal follows allegations by Washington that Beijing is considering sending arms and other lethal aid to Russia. A year into the conflict, neither side has a clear upper hand in a series of bloody skirmishes in Ukraine’s east, stirring calls among some Chinese nationalists to increase aid to Russia.
Stoltenberg said there were “signs and indications that China may be planning and considering to supply military aid to Russia” but there was no evidence it had yet done so.
Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, said Beijing “has always taken a responsible and cautious approach on military exports and does not offer any arms deals in any conflict zones or to parties involved in war. What we have been doing is promoting peace talks.”
Hu Xijin, a former editor of nationalist Chinese tabloid Global Times, defended Beijing’s hesitation to provide direct military aid.
China had already provided the “greatest support to Russia’s sanctioned economy” by increasing imports of energy and foodstuffs and maintaining the flow of Chinese “electronics, cars and microprocessors”, Hu said this week.
Chinese customs data shows imports from its neighbour climbed 43 per cent last year to $114bn as it ramped up purchases of Russian oil, gas and coal, while exports rose 13 per cent to $76bn.
Additional reporting by Maiqi Ding and Nian Liu in Beijing