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China and Indonesia’s self-serving Ukraine peace plans

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Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Indonesia's President Joko Widodo shake hands during the G7 leaders' summit, Hiroshima, Japan, 21 May 2023 (Source: Reuters/Ukrainian Presidential Press Service).

In Brief

On 24 February 2023, one year after Russia started its war of aggression against Ukraine, the Chinese government published a 12-point plan for ending the hostilities. The plan called for respecting sovereignty, a ceasefire, peace negotiations, protection of civilians, humanitarian aid, abstention from nuclear arms, ending sanctions, refraining from weaponising the global economy and post-conflict reconstruction of Ukraine.


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On 3 June at the Shangri-la Dialogue, Indonesian Defense Minister Prabowo Subianto issued what was misperceived as an Indonesian government peace plan. Key components of the plan include a ceasefire, the creation of a demilitarised zone, stationing UN-mandated peacekeeping forces and conducting a UN-organized referendum in contested territories.

While Russia greeted both plans with sympathy, the Chinese proposal was met with scepticism in Ukraine and the West. Critics bemoaned its ambiguity. Prabowo’s plan fared even worse. Kyiv found the proposal ‘strange’ and argued it resembled a ‘Russian plan’. Western media ridiculed it as a ‘freelance’ stunt after it transpired that Prabowo presented the plan without informing President Joko Widodo or Indonesia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

International reception of the Chinese and Prabowo proposals suggests they won’t pave the way toward a sustainable resolution of the conflict. Despite the futility of both plans, they convey hidden messages about how their proponents imagine the future world order.

The most important message in the Chinese peace plan is its first point on sovereignty. Beijing’s position is unsurprising given its incessantly repeated pronouncements that Westphalian sovereignty norms in the UN Charter are the cornerstones of international law, leaving no room for cosmopolitan legal reforms with tangible ‘behind-the-border’ effects. Non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries is a key premise of the ‘Beijing Consensus’, which China uses to court partners, especially in the Global South. But why does China avoid condemning Russia’s invasion?

The answer lies in point two of the peace plan. It implicitly creates conditions that condone breaches of international law. This is the case when countries seek security at the expense of others. In the Chinese reading, this is exactly the situation confronting Russia with the eastward expansion of NATO.

With the accession of Eastern European countries, NATO membership increased from 16 to 30 between 1999 and 2020. China follows the Russian narrative for the war — Moscow’s ‘special military operation’ is an action of last resort under a dramatically deteriorating security environment. From this perspective, the United States and NATO are responsible for the war.

Such an argument is typical for great powers. It leaves the question of why Russia’s security should be valued higher than the security of its small Eastern European neighbours unanswered. Due to centuries of Russian colonisation and military interventions during the Soviet period, these countries entered the post-Cold War era deeply traumatised. With its Near Abroad policy, inaugurated soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia fanned these fears.

Near Abroad is a Russian policy to maintain influence in former Soviet republics and adjacent countries. The signal it sent to Russia’s Eastern European neighbours was that the resumption of Russian imperialism is always possible. The 2008 war against Georgia and the 2014 annexation of Crimea corroborated these concerns.

Near Abroad constitutes a spheres of military influence framework — a concept contrary to the immediate post-Cold War time and attempts to establish a more cooperative world order. Not joining NATO due to Russian reservations would have meant Eastern European countries compromise their own security for Russia’s security.

Indonesia did vote on 2 March 2022 for a UN General Assembly resolution condemning the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But Prabowo’s recent proposal, like China’s position, fails to name the aggressor. It seeks to freeze the war, leaving Russia the option to revive its aggression.

Negotiations based on the current frontline reward the aggressor. They allow Russia to use its territorial gains as a bargaining chip. What may come out of a referendum in the disputed areas has been amply demonstrated in September 2022, when Moscow forced the population living in four Ukrainian oblasts occupied by Russian military to vote at gunpoint for the regions’ accession to Russia. The proposed referendum ignores that according to international law, the territories occupied by Russia are parts of Ukraine.

Prabowo’s proposal to start peace negotiations based on the military status quo differs from Ukrainian and Western calls for this to be proceeded by the complete withdrawal of Russian troops from occupied territories. His peace plan mirrors widespread anti-United States sentiment in the Indonesian public that dates back to the Sukarno era and has been fueled by seemingly anti-Islamic American policies in the Middle East.

The mediations offered by China and Prabowo are self-serving. Through its peace plan, China seeks to reduce international pressure to use its proximity to Russian President Vladimir Putin for mediation and present itself as a peace-seeking alternative to the warmongering United States. This is a concept that resonates well in the Global South. Prabowo’s proposal is a thinly veiled attempt to boost his chances in the 2024 presidential elections. He misused Indonesia’s mediation capacities, frequently rehearsed since the Suharto era, to propagate ambitions for joining the club of great powers with global leadership claims.

Due to their NATO-centred views of the war, the Chinese government and Prabowo disregard Putin’s other narrative. Putin portrays Ukraine as a historical error, an integral part of Russia — meaning it lacks legitimate statehood. China’s and Prabowo’s silence on these distortions of history and ethno-nationalist dimensions of the war is akin to a re-legitimation of vintage conceptualisations of international politics.

Their rhetoric for a new international order, free of Cold War mentalities, thus rings hollow. It rests on a traditional great power lens, informed by political realism.

Jürgen Rüland is Professor Emeritus in The Department of Political Science at the University of Freiburg, Germany.

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