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Why Ukraine’s interest in Chinese-brokered peace worries the White House

How many Ukrainian lives is the US prepared to sacrifice to maintain the illusion of its own supremacy in global affairs?

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Photo courtesy General Staff of the Armed Forces of Ukraine/Facebook

China’s recent pledge to send a peace delegation to Ukraine in the hope of resolving the country’s ongoing war with Russia is a hopeful sign the bloody conflict may soon come to an end. But the US’s general hostility to Chinese peace initiatives suggests there may be serious limitations to Ukrainian sovereignty. The choice between continuing the conflict, or suing for peace, may not be Kyiv’s to make.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s April 26 phone call with Xi Jinping focused on developing bilateral relations between the two nations that had been in a state of limbo since the start of the Russian invasion in February 2023. Zelensky described the conversation as “long and meaningful,” while Xi reiterated China’s official policy of neutrality, stating that negotiation is the only way out of the conflict. China’s position contrasts sharply with that of the United States and NATO, which have both committed to providing Kyiv a seemingly infinite supply of offensive weaponry, training, and intelligence, ostensibly to equip Ukraine’s army with the firepower necessary to drive Russia out of the parts of the country that it occupies and claims to have annexed.

Whereas China’s diplomatic efforts have been developing for some time, the US position has been to consistently dismiss diplomacy out of hand.

While White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby described the call between Xi and Zelensky as “a good thing,” he stated his doubts it would lead anywhere. This doubt has been consistently expressed by US officials since talk of a Chinese peace effort began circulating earlier this year. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also cautioned against the 12-point peace plan, calling it a “distraction.” Kirby even suggested China cannot be impartial. A recent Bloomberg headline—“US Fears a War-Weary World May Embrace China’s Ukraine Peace Bid”—says the quiet part out loud: peace initiatives hatched by other nations are a concern to the White House.

Though China’s plan has been criticized as “toothless,” vague and underwhelming, it includes some reasonable arguments in favour of resuming peace talks, maintaining global supply chains, and avoiding the use of nuclear weapons at all costs. The proposal has been favourably received by some European leaders, including Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who encouraged Xi to discuss his peace plans with Kyiv directly. Embattled French President Emmanuel Macron suggested China has a leading role to play in ending the conflict.

Beijing’s push for peace in Ukraine is consistent with its other recent diplomatic efforts, including playing central role in re-establishing relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia. China also put forward proposals to broker negotiations between Israel and Palestine. Though the the US has been dismissive of these efforts, China seems to be accomplishing what Western nations have failed to do for decades—reignite cooperation and seek engagement rather than escalation in conflict zones around the world.

On Ukraine, the US has accused China of having duplicitous motivations, yet Washington has not yet proposed an alternative peace plan of its own. It is difficult not to interpret this as additional proof that some Western nations simply aren’t interested in an end to the conflict (at least not yet). Consider that former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson blocked a peace deal in April 2022 on the grounds that Russian President Vladimir Putin could not be negotiated with.

Kirby’s rejection of a ceasefire proposal was made in unambiguously strategic terms: he cited Ukrainian territorial losses, how a ceasefire would ‘give Putin a pass,’ and how any Chinese-brokered peace would burnish Beijing and Xi’s global image (all unacceptable outcomes). Not once did he mention the human toll of continued warfare.

The official US narrative—namely that Ukraine is a liberal democracy fighting for its right to self-determination—changes once China enters the picture. Based on the reaction to the peace plan, it would seem that Ukraine is only free enough to continue fighting a de facto NATO proxy war, but not so free it can decide when it would like to pursue peace—or even choose who might facilitate negotiations.

While the right to self-determination has been a rallying cry for Ukraine and its Western backers, what’s best for the world may not be the Ukrainian military regaining every inch of lost territory, including Crimea. This is an unfortunate paradox in which the wishes and desires of larger and more powerful nations may take precedence over those of Ukraine, especially if it results in a substantive decrease in the threat of a nuclear war or the broad economic impact of the conflict.

Irrespective of American indifference to the Chinese proposal, it is important to note it has important common ground with Zelensky’s 10-point peace plan, released at the end of last year. Grain exports and nuclear safety are good examples of where Ukraine and China’s priorities align. Zelensky also seems much more interested in China’s peace plan than the US, with reports indicating he was cautiously optimistic about the plan while the Biden administration dismissed it as “not rational.”

China’s foray into the Russo-Ukrainian quagmire is not without precedent. As China seeks to increase its global influence, it has embarked on a diplomatic blitz, hosting and facilitating dialogue between nations with long-lasting animosities. Recently, Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang indicated he has spoken with his Israeli and Palestinian counterparts and that China is ready to facilitate peace talks between the two nations. This diplomatic offensive, which saw the dramatic brokering of successful negotiations between Saudi Arabia and Iran that will normalize relations between the two nations, has been interpreted at once as a boon for global stability and as an opening salvo in a new ‘anti-Western global order.’

If China succeeds even in simply calming the tense situation in Israel-Palestine by opening a dialogue there, it will have done more to secure peace in the Middle East than the last several US administrations combined.

As much as we would like to believe Ukraine is free to act in its own best interests, caught as it is between the designs of major world powers, its sovereignty is something of an illusion. If we accept and encourage the self-determination of all nations, then the responsibility for determining when peace is negotiated and on what terms lies with Ukraine alone, irrespective of the impact that may have on global security and stability. However, even though Ukraine is right to defend itself, there is a limit on how far it can go.

Even if Ukraine isn’t pushed in a specific direction by more powerful nations, there are the practical aspects of the conflict which may force its hand. No matter how much military assistance NATO provides, Ukraine will gradually run out of people with the physical and mental capacity to wage war. Kyiv cannot fight ‘to the last person’ because it must maintain at least some semblance of a standing army as a deterrent against future Russian aggression. Given extending NATO membership to Ukraine would be a provocative action with deleterious consequences, Ukraine may exhaust itself sooner than the alliance would like. The West needs to prepare for this, and recognize that a ceasefire by way of Ukrainian capitulation isn’t preferable to a Chinese-brokered peace plan, but much worse.

Though it may be impossible for the White House to realize and accept it, Washington’s reign as the unchallenged global hegemon is effectively over. What is most troubling about its rejection of China’s peace plan is that it reminds us not of the US’s apparent commitment to its own exceptionalism, but rather of how dangerous this geopolitical arrogance truly is. It is the height of irony that Ukraine may be goaded into continuing a hopeless war for the apparent cause of its sovereignty when in truth American policy towards Ukraine may have much more to do with its sagging global stature and the rise of China.

How many Ukrainian lives is the US prepared to sacrifice to maintain the illusion of its own supremacy in global affairs?

Taylor C. Noakes is an independent journalist and public historian from Montréal. In addition to writing regularly for Canadian Dimension, he contributes to the Toronto Star, Jacobin, Cult MTL, The Maple, DeSmog, and the Montréal Review of Books, among others. He holds an MA in Public History from Duquesne University and has worked on the restoration of playwright August Wilson’s childhood home. He is also a frequent contributor to the Canadian Encyclopedia, and once debated several Canadian prime ministers at once on matters of foreign policy.

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