What Putin and Xi Jinping’s meeting means for WW3: JUSTIN BRONK warns the ‘next big problem’ after Ukraine isn’t Russia or China, but both at once – with Beijing calling the shots
Xi Jinping has been in Moscow this week to meet Russian president Vladimir Putin, with the Chinese leader unveiling a ‘peace plan’ to end the conflict.
Western leaders have questioned the real motive behind the 12-point document – given that Beijing has stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Russia and parroted the Kremlin’s talking points about NATO expansionism.
JUSTIN BRONK, a research fellow at London’s Royal United Services Institute, says the visit is another reminder of the crucial role China will play in the conflict.
Below, he analyses what Mr Xi is trying to achieve with the ‘peace plan’, whether he genuinely wants a ceasefire, and the reasons for his continued support for Mr Putin.
He also reveals the one key issue he believes influences China’s every move – the looming conflict over Taiwan.
The state visit of Chinese leader Xi Jinping to meet Vladimir Putin in Russia this week is a reminder for Western leaders of two important factors that will determine what the medium and long term outcomes of the war in Ukraine look like.
One is to do with China’s long term position of dominance over Russia post-war and what that means for European security, and the other is about the nature of negotiations for peace between states at war.
When Putin made the catastrophic decision to launch his full scale invasion of Ukraine a year ago, he either knowingly or unknowingly consigning Russia to a position of long term subordination and dependence on China.
Putin and his inner circle had anticipated harsh Western sanctions and diplomatic isolation in response, even if the speed and unity of the Western measures came as a surprise in the event.
They knew that Europe’s dependence on Russian oil and gas provided them with a powerful coercive political tool, but could have foreseen that it would be one with a short shelf life once used to support such naked aggression.
In response to the invasion, Western states have cut the Russian economy off from its primary suppliers of high-end goods with sweeping sanctions, and frozen oligarchs’ assets and central bank deposits.
Meanwhile, even heavily dependent states like Germany have rapidly diversified their oil and gas supply base away from Russia – an effort that temporarily imposed major cost increases on European citizens, but which has greatly reduced the Russian state’s main source of revenue and diplomatic leverage.
As a result, Russia has nowhere to turn to for the components and investment its economy needs other than China, and no other market large enough to replace even a fraction of its crippled European oil and gas sales.
Xi Jinping arrived in Moscow ready to take full advantage of Russia’s weakness; he extracted numerous promises from Putin on trade relations, long-term oil and gas infrastructure construction to supply Chinese needs at bargain prices, and other forms of ‘cooperation’ on terms that are heavily favourable to China.
China’s call for an urgent ceasefire and peace talks to end the war between Ukraine and Russia was today met with scepticism in Kyiv and the West
In return, however, Putin received no further declarations of support beyond carefully worded statements of diplomatic unity and friendship. There was nothing to suggest that China is planning to suddenly ramp up its limited existing covert support for Russia’s struggling war effort in Ukraine. In other words, Xi got everything he asked for and Putin got little of substance from the meeting.
Chinese leaders remain deeply uncomfortable with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has caused widespread effects that they dislike – most notably global economic uncertainty, geopolitical turmoil and most of all revitalised Western political and military unity.
The poor performance of the Russian Army has also exposed the unreadiness of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to invade Taiwan. Even though the PLA is much larger and has more advanced technology and equipment, it owes many of its doctrinal and organisational roots to the Russian military model.
However, in the medium term, the war is providing Chinese military planners with a masterclass in how to avoid the mistakes and shortcomings that their own military would have suffered from in any future clash with the US and its allies.
The PLA is currently hard at work putting reforms and modernisation efforts in place in response, and so by 2026/27 is likely to be much more dangerous as a potential adversary than they would otherwise have been.
This matters because Chinese leaders remain ideologically committed to destroying Taiwan’s independence by force, despite the difficulties and huge risks that such an attack poses.
China’s fixation with crushing the example of liberal, democratic success that Taiwan represents to its people, and the likelihood that the US will try to defend it militarily in the event of an outright Chinese attack, also gives Chinese leaders strong incentives to support Russia militarily in the medium term.
Put simply, it is in China’s interests to have Russia continue to pose a credible military threat to European security in the medium term, because it needs the threat (or reality) of Russian military aggression in Eastern Europe to keep US and European forces tied down there, away from the Indo-Pacific.
Therefore, once there is some form of ceasefire in Ukraine, China is likely to help Russia continue to rebuild and modernise its military forces and stay afloat economically.
Russian dependence on Chinese economic and potentially military support will also give Chinese leaders the leverage and influence in Moscow to ensure that Russian will cause problems in Europe in the event of a Chinese-American clash over Taiwan or another disputed territory in the Indo-Pacific.
In other words, the ‘next big problem’ after Ukraine isn’t Russia or China, but both at once – with Beijing increasingly calling the shots.
Ukrainian service members ride a tank, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, near the town of Lyman, Donetsk region, Ukraine, on February 23
China’s proposed ‘peace plan’ for Ukraine, despite being unacceptable to both warring parties at the moment, is also illustrative of the distortions affecting most Western thinking on what a ceasefire might look like.
Against the Taliban in Afghanistan or Iranian-backed militias in Iraq, the fundamental question defining when the wars would end was when the US, UK and other allies would accept that they couldn’t win, and agree the messy and unpleasant concessions required to obtain a deal with the enemy for an end to the fighting.
That dynamic in questionably justifiable ‘forever wars’ has led many to openly speculate about the supposed need to agree concessions on Ukrainian territory to get a ceasefire with Russia, either because of worries about cost, casualties or long term viability of Western support. However, the situation in Ukraine is fundamentally different.
First of all, Russia has no incentive currently to stick to any ceasefire agreed, since its leaders believe that they can continue the war longer than the West can continue to support Ukraine with the ammunition and equipment it needs to fight effectively.
Public statements about the eventual need for Ukraine to make concessions and agree some form of deal that cedes territory to Russia permanently in exchange for a ceasefire only increases Russian leaders’ perception that the West will back down militarily before they do, and so increases their incentives to keep fighting.
Ukraine’s leadership and an overwhelming majority of its people, likewise, believe they can win back most if not all occupied territory. They are certainly morally, legally and ethically within their rights to do so.
The Russian Army is also currently suffering acute shortages of trained personnel, ammunition and modern equipment after disastrous losses taken over the past year during its grinding January and February offensives around Bakhmut, Vuhledar and Ardiivka.
Kyiv has no incentives to seek a ceasefire at this stage on anything other than the terms already given; the return of all occupied territories, reparations for the destruction caused, and Western security guarantees. Russia will not agree to those terms.
The only way the West could ‘make concessions’ to Russia would be to force Ukraine to do so by withholding support that they desperately need and that currently could make a decisive difference to their ability to regain lost territory while Russia is weakened.
Doing so would not only be a betrayal of the Ukrainian people, but also of the principle that it is unacceptable for nations to seize others’ territory using military force.
Russia would extract major concessions in return for serious talks; even more concessions to reach a ceasefire agreement; and then would use the following few months of uneasy peace to replenish its depleted forces and ammunition stocks near the frontlines and then start the fighting again from a far stronger position that it is now.
Russia has repeatedly used ceasefires in exactly this way – to extract concessions while buying time to regroup and resupply its forces for renewed offensives on its own timetable – in both Chechnya and also Syria. We must not force Ukraine to suffer the same fate.
The uncomfortable truth is that thanks to Chinese support, Russia will remain a threat to European security for many years to come, especially if and when China conducts aggressive military action in the Indo-Pacific and gets into a standoff or war with the US. There is no returning to the old days of cheap security.
In Ukraine, the only way to achieve peace is to convince Russian leaders that Europe and the US are both committed to supporting Ukraine’s needs for ammunition and equipment for as long as it takes to win.
Only then will Putin and his subordinates face a situation where continuing the war leads inevitably to their position getting worse rather than better, and so only then will they seriously negotiate with Kyiv and its allies.
The solution to both factors is simple, but politically unwelcome: European nations including the UK must commit now to major investment in factory capacity and bulk orders for military vehicles, spares and above all ammunition. This will be hard at a time when there are so many demands on government spending, although such investment would be mostly spent in our own countries creating skilled jobs.
Ultimately, it is the only way to ensure that Europe can defend itself against Russian aggression in the years to come as US military capacity becomes ever more committed in the Indo-Pacific to contain China, and it is also the best route to convincing Russia to negotiate an actual peace in Ukraine.
WHAT IS CHINA’S 12-POINT CEASE-FIRE PROPOSAL?
1. Respecting the sovereignty of all countries.
Universally recognized international law, including the purposes and principles of the United Nations Charter, must be strictly observed. The sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity of all countries must be effectively upheld. All countries, big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor, are equal members of the international community. All parties should jointly uphold the basic norms governing international relations and defend international fairness and justice. Equal and uniform application of international law should be promoted, while double standards must be rejected.
2. Abandoning the Cold War mentality.
The security of a country should not be pursued at the expense of others. The security of a region should not be achieved by strengthening or expanding military blocs. The legitimate security interests and concerns of all countries must be taken seriously and addressed properly. There is no simple solution to a complex issue. All parties should, following the vision of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security and bearing in mind the long-term peace and stability of the world, help forge a balanced, effective and sustainable European security architecture. 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.
3. Ceasing hostilities.
Conflict and war benefit no one. All parties must stay rational and exercise restraint, avoid fanning the flames and aggravating tensions, and prevent the crisis from deteriorating further or even spiraling out of control. All parties should support Russia and Ukraine in working in the same direction and resuming direct dialogue as quickly as possible, so as to gradually deescalate the situation and ultimately reach a comprehensive ceasefire.
4. Resuming peace talks.
Dialogue and negotiation are the only viable solution to the Ukraine crisis. All efforts conducive to the peaceful settlement of the crisis must be encouraged and supported. The international community should stay committed to the right approach of promoting talks for peace, help parties to the conflict open the door to a political settlement as soon as possible, and create conditions and platforms for the resumption of negotiation. China will continue to play a constructive role in this regard.
5. Resolving the humanitarian crisis.
All measures conducive to easing the humanitarian crisis must be encouraged and supported. Humanitarian operations should follow the principles of neutrality and impartiality, and humanitarian issues should not be politicized. The safety of civilians must be effectively protected, and humanitarian corridors should be set up for the evacuation of civilians from conflict zones. Efforts are needed to increase humanitarian assistance to relevant areas, improve humanitarian conditions, and provide rapid, safe and unimpeded humanitarian access, with a view to preventing a humanitarian crisis on a larger scale. The UN should be supported in playing a coordinating role in channeling humanitarian aid to conflict zones.
6. Protecting civilians and prisoners of war (POWs).
Parties to the conflict should strictly abide by international humanitarian law, avoid attacking civilians or civilian facilities, protect women, children and other victims of the conflict, and respect the basic rights of POWs. China supports the exchange of POWs between Russia and Ukraine, and calls on all parties to create more favorable conditions for this purpose.
7. Keeping nuclear power plants safe.
China opposes armed attacks against nuclear power plants or other peaceful nuclear facilities, and calls on all parties to comply with international law including the Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS) and resolutely avoid man-made nuclear accidents. China supports the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in playing a constructive role in promoting the safety and security of peaceful nuclear facilities.
8. Reducing strategic risks.
Nuclear weapons must not be used and nuclear wars must not be fought. The threat or use of nuclear weapons should be opposed. Nuclear proliferation must be prevented and nuclear crisis avoided. China opposes the research, development and use of chemical and biological weapons by any country under any circumstances.
9. Facilitating grain exports.
All parties need to implement the Black Sea Grain Initiative signed by Russia, Türkiye, Ukraine and the UN fully and effectively in a balanced manner, and support the UN in playing an important role in this regard. The cooperation initiative on global food security proposed by China provides a feasible solution to the global food crisis.
10. Stopping unilateral sanctions.
Unilateral sanctions and maximum pressure cannot solve the issue; they only create new problems. China opposes unilateral sanctions unauthorized by the UN Security Council. Relevant countries should stop abusing unilateral sanctions and ‘long-arm jurisdiction’ against other countries, so as to do their share in deescalating the Ukraine crisis and create conditions for developing countries to grow their economies and better the lives of their people.
11. Keeping industrial and supply chains stable.
All parties should earnestly maintain the existing world economic system and oppose using the world economy as a tool or weapon for political purposes. Joint efforts are needed to mitigate the spillovers of the crisis and prevent it from disrupting international cooperation in energy, finance, food trade and transportation and undermining the global economic recovery.
12. Promoting post-conflict reconstruction.
The international community needs to take measures to support post-conflict reconstruction in conflict zones. China stands ready to provide assistance and play a constructive role in this endeavor.
Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China
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