Unpacking Beijing's Peace Plan: Exploring China's Strategic Interests and Geopolitical Maneuver
In late May, the international community shortly turned its attention to Beijing's Peace Plan for Russia's invasion of Ukraine when the PRC (People's Republic of China) sent an envoy to Ukraine for mediation. It came as no surprise that no breakthrough was achieved. Upon this action, the Chinese government attempted to cast itself as a peace broker and deflect criticism that it had not acted to help end Russia's war in Ukraine. However, inherent deficiencies undermined the plan's effectiveness, which also introduced complexities to the situation. Thus, it is crucial for stakeholders to understand Beijing's motives and objectives to navigate the intricate case.
What were the Chinese government's ambitions and motives behind this proposal, and how should we look at the PRC's role in this situation? Geopolitical considerations and power dynamics play a key role in the Russian-Ukraine war and should be the starting point to examine Beijing's mediation project. This article explores the Chinese government's motives behind the Peace Plan, dispels misconceptions, and fosters a broader understanding of the global landscape of the war in Ukraine.
Building International Image
Since the war began, the PRC has claimed to be neutral, but its vague position has been criticized due to its "unlimited partnership" with Russia. Indeed, even neutrality can be viewed negatively, as stated by Germany's foreign minister Annalena Baerbock in a press conference: "Neutrality means taking the side of the aggressor". Trying to prove "neutrality" and build an image of "responsible global power", the Chinese government brought up a Peace Plan as its own strategy for resolution. Earlier this year, in March, the success of China's Saudi-Iran Deal strengthened Beijing's ambition to expand its influence in any area where American presence is decreasing, which aligns with the country's long-term strategic plan.
Building on this accomplishment, the PRC seized an opportunity to extend its arm to Eastern Europe by mediating the Russian-Ukraine conflict. Beijing's involvement stems from its interest in building international prestige and influence, particularly in a post-pandemic context marked by instability and growing international volatility. Through this engagement, the Chinese government aims to solidify its position as a global power and advance its presence and influence in key regions such as Eurasia.
Exploiting Russia's Struggle
Russia's declining standing, combined with the pressures it faces after it invaded Ukraine in 2022, drives its appeal to Beijing for assistance. The Peace Plan, which received compliments from Vladimir Putin when Xi visited Moscow in March and had been agreed upon by the Russian counterpart, served well as a bargaining chip in the "unlimited" Sino-Russia partnership. Russia's acquiescence to Beijing's involvement in the conflict suggests a desperate attempt to find a partner amid difficulties in the war. Beijing's mediation can provide a sense of security to Moscow while potentially positioning China as an unnoticed beneficiary. With a crumbling Russia and "the West" being forced to heavily support Ukraine, the Chinese government could further its geostrategic interests at a minimal cost. Beijing's entry into the mediation process allows it to enhance its position bilaterally with Moscow, including economic benefits and territorial advantages.
Moreover, the power vacuum resulting from the Russian-Ukraine war provides China with an opportune moment to encroach on Russia's power, gradually eroding Russia's influence in key regions such as Eurasia and Indo-Pacific. Leveraging its advantages in the Sino-Russia relationship, the Chinese government has regained the right to use Vladivostok, a strategically important port ceded by Russia in 1860, and both of Russia's military and commercial gateway to the Pacific. In the meantime, the Chinese government held a summit in parallel to the West's G7 meeting, aiming to engage with five Central Asian countries, which are traditionally seen as under Russia's sphere of influence. The summit underscored Beijing's efforts to capitalize on Russia's weakness and expand its influence in Eurasia.
Relying on China's Peace Plan as an opportunity for itself and trying to secure its backdoor in the east border to deploy more troops to Ukraine, Russia would not reject demands from Beijing. The combination of Beijing's strategic motives and Moscow's desperation creates a new dynamic dimension. However, there is a risk that this could clash with the United States and Europe's diplomatic initiatives to expand their influence, which Russia is rescinding.
Distorting Attention and Narrative
Furthermore, the PRC's mediation efforts in the Russian-Ukraine conflict can be understood as a strategy to navigate the international landscape and address challenges posed by the Taiwan issue. From Beijing's point of view, the sensitive nature of Taiwan has attracted too much attention from "the West", exerting unprecedented pressure on the leadership in Beijing. In this context, the Chinese government may employ diversion tactics akin to a "no-look pass" in football games, strategically redirecting focus away from Taiwan, even temporarily. Additionally, although the PRC aims to present itself as a peace broker, showcasing its commitment to stability and avoiding negative economic repercussions, Beijing does not wish for the conflict to end quickly. A resolution of the war could potentially free up Western resources, including energy, financial support, and weaponry, thus intensifying the confrontation with the PRC on the Taiwan issue. The leadership in Beijing recognizes that a failure of Russia in Ukraine carries far-reaching implications for a broader struggle between democratic and authoritarian governance.
A defeat of Russia, which will be perceived as a triumph of democratic values, could undermine the Chinese Communist Party's legitimacy and create obstacles for its domestic mobilization and narrative regarding its future agenda in Taiwan. By getting involved in resolving the Russia-Ukraine war, Beijing can have more influence to navigate the situation and maintain a greater degree of control over the narrative surrounding its future actions.
Overall, the Chinese government's Peace Plan, when scrutinized closely, reveals a self-interested pursuit driven by strategic calculations. As the war in Ukraine continues, it is essential to closely analyze Beijing's actions and their implications, ensuring a comprehensive understanding of the dynamics at play in the region and beyond. The mediation may be presented as an attempt to broker peace, but a deeper analysis reveals that Beijing had ulterior motives driven by its own interests. The Chinese government can further its strategic objectives by exploiting Russia's vulnerabilities and navigating the international landscape.
The power vacuum created by the conflict offers the country an opportunity to encroach on Russian influence and position itself as a major player in shaping regional dynamics. The international community should exercise caution and manage expectations regarding Beijing's role, considering the possibility that the PRC may exploit the conflict to emerge as a primary beneficiary. Their involvement will further interconnect geopolitical challenges and the struggle for political influence worldwide.