Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis: China’s Ambivalence Prevails
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 26 Feb , 2023

Coinciding with the anniversary of Russia-Ukraine Warthat has left at least 8,006 civilians dead and 13,287 injured over the past 12 months[1], in addition to the numerous lives previously lost in the conflict in eastern Ukraine, on 24 February, 2023 China issued its official position on political settlement[2].

As expected, prima facie, the proposal does not seem to take any particular position and reiterates China’s long held view on international conflicts. China squarely blames NATO expansion as the main cause for this conflict, and fails to propose any concrete process through which this conflict can be brought to an end. However, in its position statement it has refrained from direct reference to NATO.China does admit that this is a complex issue with no simple solution. As usual, ambivalence prevails in China’s position paper where the term “all parties” is used as against two parties – Russia and Ukraine. It’s clear that in Chinese view the conflict in Ukraine involves more actors than just Russia and Ukraine.

The situation according to Mearsheimer is, “Russia has to win no matter what, and the US led West cannot lose this war or cannot let Russia win no matter what”–paradoxical situation[3]. This is a Catch-22[4]or lose-lose situation and possibility of use of nuclear weapons remains high in this context. In its proposal, China has cautioned, “nuclear weapons must not be used and nuclear wars must not be fought. The threat or use of nuclear weapons should be opposed”.The reference to nuclear weapons is not limited to Russia given that the other party involved in the conflict is a non-nuclear power and hence obviously refers to NATO’s nuclear arsenal.Whether used or not used, the nuclear weapons are already in play. The well calibrated and limited military support being provided by the US led West to Ukraine in its War efforts is due to the presence of nuclear weapons and its possible use. In interpretation, China is perhaps making the point that – NATO must not use its nuclear weapons against Russia. In terms of conceptualizing this conflict, in Chinese view this is a conflict between Russia and the US led West (NATO). The resolution of the conflict as per China’s view includesforging a balanced, effective and sustainable “European security architecture” and this conflict is connected to the peace and stability of not just the “Eurasian continent”, but also the world. By referring to the characteristics of the “European Security Architecture” China is locating the conflict and its resolution at a level beyond Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty. In its proposal China avoids the use of term “territorial integrity” strictly with respect to Ukraine and states – “The sovereignty, independence and “territorial integrity of all countries” must be effectively upheld”. According to former Chinese Senior Military Colonel Zhou Bo, “China as country that is not fully re-united is certainly more concerned with the issue of sovereignty, so we understand how sovereignty matters really, be it in China or rest of the world”[5].

Hence China’s mentioning of “sovereignty” in its proposal includes Russia’s sovereignty concerns – the proposal states, “Equal and uniform application of international law should be promoted, while “double standards” must be rejected”.For many years, Russia’s repeated warning to the West that its NATO led expansion along Russia’s immediate border was tantamount to violation of its sovereign concerns and an existential threat was either ignored or ridiculed. The security architecture in Europe was founded on a assurance that NATO will not expand eastwards, however the West claims that such a assurance was given to Soviet Union and not Russia. China’s stated position in its proposal, “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” is nothing but – BS. Hence, China’s proposal further sides with Russia’s concern perhaps legitimate by stating, “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”.

The proposal envisages the role for “all parties” in ceasing hostilities, thus stating that hostilities cannot be brought to closure by just Russia and Ukraine. China has given itself a space to play a constructive role in resuming negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. Use of terms such as “right approach of promoting talks for peace”, “open the door to a political settlement”, and “create conditions and platforms for the resumption of negotiation” remain loose and open to one’s imagination. By stating that, “‘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” China has indicated that the West may attempt to do so. Furthermore, China has denounced the West by stating, “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”.

On the whole China’s proposal must be read along with the statement made by Member of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee and Director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs Wang Yi in Moscow on 22 February where in he stated that “China is ready to work with Russia to maintain strategic resolve, deepen political mutual trust, strengthen strategic coordination, expand practical cooperation and defend the legitimate interests of both countries, to play a constructive role in promoting world peace and development”[6]. For China, the Russia-Ukraine conflict is a crisis, but only with the opportunities present with it. China’s proposal is pro-Russia by all means although it is coated in ambivalence and this is reinstated in China’s categorization of Russia-China relations as standing as firm as Mount Tai[7] (first of the five sacred mountains in China). The only reason one can’t see this is because one is ignorant -有眼不識泰山.


[1]“The UN and the war in Ukraine: key information” Regional Information Center for Western Information, United Nations. Available at [Accessed on 25 February, 2023].

[2]“China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis” 2023-02-24. Available at [Accessed on 25 February, 2023].

[3]Interview with Prof. John J. Mearsheimer on Ukraine crisis, CGTN, 24 February, 2023.

[4]A Catch-22 is a paradoxical situation from which an individual cannot escape because of contradictory rules or limitations. The term was coined by Joseph Heller, who used it in his 1961 novel Catch-22.

[5]Former Chinese senior colonel: War in Ukraine ‘has nothing to do with China’, DW Interview, 19 February, 2023.

[6]Russian President Vladimir Putin Meets with Wang Yi, 2023-02-22. Available at [Accessed on 25 February, 2023].

[7]Wang Yi (2023).

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Dr Rajasimman Sundaram

teaches history, politics, and culture and a member of the Institute of BRICS Studies and College of Multi-Languages at Sichuan International Studies University [四川外国语大学] (The People’s Republic of China)". 

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