On the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) offered a 12-point plan to bring an end to the bloodshed, starting with an immediate cease fire. The proposal stated that “the sovereignty of all countries should be respected” and reiterated China’s longstanding opposition to the use of nuclear weapons. However, it also called for an end to “unilateral sanctions” and – in an apparent swipe at NATO – condemned “bloc confrontations” and manifestations of a “cold-war mentality.”
The reaction of Biden administration officials was decidedly negative. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told ABC News that the peace plan merely showed that China was trying to draw the world’s eyes away from its support of Russian President Vladimir Putin. “China’s been trying to have it both ways — it’s on the one hand trying to present itself publicly as neutral and seeking peace, while at the same time it is talking up Russia’s false narrative about the war,” Blinken said. “There are 12 points in the Chinese plan. If they were serious about the first one, sovereignty, then this war could end tomorrow.”
President Biden was utterly dismissive of Beijing’s handiwork. "If Putin is applauding it, so how could it be any good?" Biden said in an interview with ABC News. Indeed, the president rejected the very notion that the PRC could play a constructive diplomatic role of any sort to end the war.
Other Western officials offered a similar chilly response. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said bluntly: “China doesn’t have much credibility because they have not been able to condemn the illegal invasion of Ukraine.”
In late April, following a phone call between PRC President Xi Jinping and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, Beijing offered a modified 10-point plan. Western leaders were no more receptive to that initiative than they had been to the earlier one.
Such negativity was not directed solely at the PRC’s mediation efforts. Other major powers, in East Asia and elsewhere, have also sought to play a mediation role and have been similarly rebuffed. At the Shangri-La Dialogue on June 3, Indonesia Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto proposed a settlement that would usher in an immediate cessation of hostilities, compel both Russia and Ukraine to withdraw 15 kilometers from their current positions to create a demilitarized buffer zone, and lead to the staging of U.N.-backed referendums in disputed territories. He said that his country even would be prepared to dispatch military observers to Ukraine to help oversee such an effort.
The reaction from Western officials at Indonesia’s temerity was shrill and angry. Josep Borrell, the European Union’s top diplomat, immediately rejected what he described as a “peace of the cemeteries, a peace of surrender” and argued that Russian aggression should not be rewarded with territorial concessions.
Brazil also has floated a peace proposal for the Russia-Ukraine conflict. President Lula da Silva even suggested creating a group of countries, “a peace coalition,” including India, China, and Indonesia as well as Brazil, to mediate peace talks between Moscow and Kyiv. These are merely the latest Ukraine peace-making ventures by countries that are not subservient to either Moscow or Washington. During the initial months of the war, both Israel and Turkey tried to halt the fighting through such diplomacy.
Ukraine is not the only arena in which independent or relatively independent international actors have sought to be proactive as mediators. The PRC played a significant, constructive role in helping to resolve long-standing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. That breakthrough had an important ripple effect. It led to Riyadh ending its efforts to unseat Bashar al-Assad, the leader of Tehran’s principal Middle East ally, Syria. That more conciliatory atmosphere in turn led promptly to Syria’s reentry into the Saudi-led Arab League, after being excluded for more than a decade.
Such developments confirm that the United States is no longer the diplomatic as well as the military global hegemon. Other powers are stepping up to embark on their own initiatives, without deferring to Washington or even seeking U.S. approval. It is yet another manifestation of an increasingly multipolar international system.
The Biden administration and its backers in the U.S. foreign policy community have not adjusted graciously to these changes. Instead, they have done little except voice complaints and try to undermine diplomatic breakthroughs with petty obstructionism. The reaction among the administration’s allies in the news media to the PRC-brokered rapprochement between Iran and Saudi Arabia was typical. Multiple assessments embodied suspicions about Beijing’s motives as well as outright alarm about the geostrategic implications. Washington’s official response to China’s successful initiative to improve relations between Saudi Arabia and the Iran-Syria bloc was to impose a new round of sanctions on Syria. That move was, to put it mildly, unhelpful.
The United States and its loyal allies understandably may resent the loss of America’s hegemonic position in world affairs. That development creates a less predictable and less comfortable international system for the Western powers. But continuing to respond with diplomatic temper tantrums does not help matters. Washington and its strategic partners must learn to at least tolerate, if not support, independent peace-making initiatives by China and other major powers.