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Why China Sat Out the Ukraine Peace Summit

Beijing’s refusal to take part does not mean it wants to keep its distance from the Ukraine war. Instead, it will look for allies in the Global South.

Published on June 21, 2024

The recent Ukraine peace summit convened by Kyiv to exert diplomatic pressure on Moscow took place without a Chinese delegation. It might seem that Beijing could only have benefitted from having a presence at such an international gathering: it would have helped China improve ties with Europe, been an opportunity to show off its anti-war credentials to the countries of the Global South, and bolstered its reputation as the main international alternative to the United States. But China decided to forego all of those advantages because of its own particular understanding of the summit, the war in Ukraine, and the changing global order.

The peace summit in Switzerland was envisioned by Ukraine as an event for heads of state (or at least senior officials) from all over the world, not just Ukraine’s traditional partners in the West. The aim was to strengthen international pressure on Moscow to force it to the negotiating table. For this reason, Kyiv was hoping the leaders of countries who don’t usually try to exert pressure on Russia would show up.

Above all, Kyiv wanted China to attend. To tempt Beijing, Ukraine even agreed in advance to take some of the most sensitive questions off the table—such as the withdrawal of Russian troops from internationally recognized Ukrainian territory. In the end, three points from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s peace plan were discussed: nuclear safety, food security, and prisoner exchanges. Two of these are of crucial importance for China, and all three feature on China’s own peace plan for Ukraine. 

Chinese leader Xi Jinping has previously raised the nuclear safety issue with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, French President Emmanuel Macron, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, and, according to reporting by the Financial Times, Russian President Vladimir Putin. China is particularly interested in food security because it was the main recipient of grain under the Black Sea grain deals reached in the initial phases of the war. And prisoner exchanges are such a straightforward humanitarian issue that they shouldn’t be a problem for China.

China was in no hurry to respond to Ukraine’s invitation because it was likely enjoying being wooed both by those seeking its attendance, and those hoping to persuade it to stay away. Scholz and Macron both discussed the issue with Beijing, while Ukraine sent diplomats to China. Putin also raised the issue of the “Ukraine crisis” during his May 2024 visit to China.

It’s clear now that the presence of a high-level Chinese delegation at the summit was ruled out from the very start: Xi has been very selective about his meetings with other leaders in recent years, preferring comfortable chats with the leaders of friendly political regimes. But it would have been possible to imagine a lower-level Chinese delegation—such as one headed by Li Hui, the Chinese government’s special representative for Eurasian affairs (who attended a similar Ukraine summit in 2023 in Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah).

But China refused to take part at all. All the efforts of Germany, France, and Ukraine were in vain—and Russia emerged looking like the winner.

Beijing gave three reasons for its decision: that the format was not recognized by both parties to the conflict; Russia was not invited; and the summit only discussed points from Zelensky’s peace plan, ignoring other peace initiatives (in other words, China’s peace proposals).

Two months ago, Xi hinted at a meeting with Scholz that the absence of an invitation for Russia was a point of principle for China. Xi has also talked about four other demands when it comes to ending the conflict: not pursuing self-interest, not pouring oil on the fire, not allowing escalation, and reducing the negative consequences for the global economy. China’s meaning is clear: Western countries are selfishly unwilling to pressure Kyiv, and continue to provide political cover for Ukraine’s maximalist demands.

Kyiv does not like the occasional criticism it receives from China, or the reports that Beijing is selling Moscow military supplies and equipment. As a result, Ukraine has toughened its rhetoric. For the first time since the start of the war, Ukraine directly criticized China in June 2024.

Beijing has responded that it is not against summits like the one in Switzerland, and that it supports all countries prepared to take part in such gatherings. Its main problem, apparently, is with Western hypocrisy.

At the same time, it’s also true that Beijing would not want a Chinese delegation to be used to discredit it or to harm its relationship with Russia. Beijing realized that it was Ukrainian officials setting the agenda in Switzerland, and that participants were supposed to simply nod along in agreement. It was also awkward for China that most of the delegations at the summit were from Western countries, and only smaller nations from the Global South took part. 

Finally, China is convinced it has done enough work when it comes to advancing the cause of peace in Ukraine: that the appointment of Li Hui and the publication of a peace plan is sufficient. Now it believes it’s up to the West to pressure Ukraine to sit down and negotiate with Putin. 

Nevertheless, China’s refusal to participate in the summit does not mean it wants to keep its distance from everything to do with the Ukraine war. Instead, Beijing is likely to seek out countries in the Global South that hold positions similar to its own. China has already released a joint statement with Brazil on resolving the conflict that it claims is “approved by a growing number of countries.”

The next step might be for China to arrange its own Ukraine conference: one that could be attended by Putin. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi called for just such a “real” peace conference at a recent BRICS summit held in Russia. 

If it’s possible to organize such a conference, then Beijing will be putting the West in the same position in which it finds itself right now. Will Washington or Brussels press Zelensky to attend such a gathering? It’s an open question. Either way, China will have achieved its goal: if the conference goes ahead then it will bolster its image as a peacekeeper, if not, it can blame everything on the West.

Indeed, almost any outcome allows Beijing to portray itself as a “responsible” global power that, unlike the hypocritical West, is seeking real peace. That angle will find a receptive audience in many countries of the Global South.

Carnegie does not take institutional positions on public policy issues; the views represented herein are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of Carnegie, its staff, or its trustees.