The light at the end of the tunnel? The Chinese proposal and the red lines of a just peace

A peace plan for Ukraine proposed by Beijing

Column by Francesco Grillo for Il MessaggeroIl Gazzettino del Nord EstIl Mattino.

CINA UCR yellow

You were given the choice between war and dishonour. You chose dishonour, and you will have war”. That is how Winston Churchill commented the outcome of the Munich agreement, signed on September 30 1938, discussing it with the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister Chamberlain. On that occasion, the Prime Ministers of France, the United Kingdom and Italy - Daladier, Chamberlain and Mussolini - met with Adolf Hitler at a surreal conference of "peace". The request was to annex the territories of Czechoslovakia (the Sudetes) to the Third Reich, invoking a principle of "self-determination" as, in those territories, German ethnic groups were the prevalent ones. France and the United Kingdom accepted the annexation to prevent a war which broke out anyway, exactly eleven months later, when the German panzers invaded Poland. Since it was first conveyed in 1963, the Munich Conference on Security has to deal with such reminiscence. In 2023, just like 85 years ago, an attempt has been made to discuss how to exit a war that is already ongoing. Avoiding the same mistakes that Churchill denounced, but with the pragmatism that Churchill himself used when he had to negotiate with Stalin a new stability. Once again, to change the current scenario it might be useful to resort to a country that the West should consider a competitor but not an enemy: China.

Wang Yi’s speech was, indeed, the only element of change during the Munich Conference. The former Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs revealed the method Beijing is using to work on a peace plan for Ukraine. The plan will be published on 24th February– the anniversary of the Russian invasion. The core basis of the proposal is the United Nations’ Charter – that, at that time, was also promoted by the Soviet Union. The first article of the Charter provides for “the suppression of acts of aggression”, and the second that “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity”. And yet, Wang admits that States’ legitimate interest to protect their own security should be acknowledged too. 

The declarations of Chinese diplomats are enigmatic, but China admits that there is an internationally acknowledged boundary that has to be restored. The details of the plan are still unknown, but the project aims to accept that the resolution of the conflict shall pass through Russia’s withdrawal from Ukraine, through a strong autonomy for the Self-proclaimed Donbass Republics – the are many examples to look at for inspiration – without excluding “self-determination”, and through Ukraine’s neutrality towards NATO, making the contact between the two biggest nuclear powers less likely. Among the various reactions, the more interesting one was that of the Ukrainian president Zelensky and the Minister of Foreign Affairs Kuleba, who recognized to the Chinese a pragmatism and a positioning that may be determining.

There is, actually, a reason that makes the proposal appealing: Putin cannot give up the war. A peace restoring the situation as it was before the disaster could not avoid raising doubts in the minds of 140 millions of Russians. Two hundred thousands dead would seem tragically useless, despite the propaganda aimed at always distorting reality. Shifting the attention of the public opinion from the war rhetoric to the everyday routine of the economy may lead Russia to deal with thirty wasted years. In a world that is inexorably moving towards a lower importance of gas and oil -  not only in the West but also in China – the weakness of oligarchs would make a political implosion (less dangerous than a military one) more likely.

Clearly, the Chinese proposal cannot please those who support the war all the way, notwithstanding where it may lead us. And it is equally certain that the mechanisms of the Geneva Convention – signed by Russian even more times than Americans – shall be activated. These mechanisms envisage specific sanctions to punish war crimes. The satellite photographs of many Ukrainian cities show a cruelty that has lost every contact with reality, a madness that no soldier would forgive. But the words of people who became heroes by chance, like President Zelensky, remind us that we have to find the way to build a more stable pace on that carnage.

China can play important cards: it is in its interest that the competition between two alternative systems is played on the technology and AI ground – where China may win – rather than on the military ground – where American supremacy is unquestioned. China wants to go back playing on that ground, after having overcome, unharmed, even the announced disaster of a sharp increase of Covid 19 deaths. Moreover, according to the International Monetary Fund, China is beginning to product again, alone, 40% of the world’s economic growth.

After all, Chinese leaders nourish themselves with their millenary history and a proposal of peace can be a great victory for XI Jinping. In fact, that peace would be gained without fighting – as recommended by the greatest General of all, Sun Tzu, author of the Art of War. In order to make it, the Chinese will have to keep in mind the lessons of another leader – that British prime Minister reminding us that peace is built and kept without drawing back an inch. In front of the ogres that Ukrainian soldiers saw moving on their compatriots’ bodies along the Eastern front of a meaningless war.

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