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China wants peace talks between Ukraine and Russia to begin as soon as possible

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On this anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, China, Russia's ally, is seeking a way out.

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Chinese officials released a so-called position paper calling for a cease-fire. Now, their gesture at peace comes during the same week that the U.S. warned that China might intensify the war. They could send weapons to Russia. Analyst Robert Daly told NPR that China is trying to prop up one of its few powerful friends.

ROBERT DALY: The posture of peacemaker is very important for Xi Jinping, both before the world and before his own people. But he also sees himself in an existential competition with the United States for which he needs Russia.

INSKEEP: One way or another, China wants Russia to come out OK. NPR China affairs correspondent John Ruwitch is in Beijing. Hey there, John.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: So what exactly was in this position paper?

RUWITCH: Well, there were 12 points. They were really broad principles. And they included things like, you know, hostilities should end. And peace talks should get underway. It says all parties should create conditions for negotiations and support dialogue between Russia and Ukraine so they can gradually de-escalate this conflict. Now, some of these points did seem to be targeted at Russia. It said nuclear arms must not be used and that the threat to do so must be opposed. It also said China is opposed to attacks on nuclear power plants. And you'll recall that there was fighting around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant not that many months ago. But there were also points clearly targeting the U.S. and the West, calling for an end to unilateral sanctions, for instance, or abandoning the, quote, "Cold War mentality."

INSKEEP: OK. This is very interesting as a public document, since it shows China pushing at least a little bit on both sides, trying to be a kind of mediator or peacemaker, as Mr. Daly...

RUWITCH: Right.

INSKEEP: ...Said earlier. But would this document have any impact?

RUWITCH: That's a key question. I mean, the government has talked it up in recent days, but it's not entirely clear to what end. I asked Ian Chong about this. He's an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore. And he was kind of scratching his head, too.

JA IAN CHONG: There isn't much leverage involved. The document lays out broad, general principles, but no real reason why you might want to cease and desist, right? There's no big appeal, that you're getting something. There's no big cost if you don't comply.

RUWITCH: His best guess is that it's an attempt by Beijing to project an image to a domestic audience, perhaps to others, that China is a global player. It's being constructive. It's standing up for peace. None of the points in this document, it has to be said, are new, which is a little bit puzzling. And in Chong's words, you know, it's unclear if this position paper is a punch line or if it's setting the stage for more to come.

INSKEEP: John, what do you make of the nearly simultaneous U.S. accusations that China, the peacemaker here, is considering providing lethal assistance to Russia, which would extend the war?

RUWITCH: We don't know much about what China's plans are. I've talked with people that think China would never do something like this. Others think China may go there if it looks like Russia is on the ropes and is about to be defeated, you know? That's because there's this strong belief here that if Russia is defeated, if it's weakened in the wake of a war, that the West - that the U.S., really - will be able to focus on trying to contain China more, you know?

By all accounts, China was surprised by the Russian invasion a year ago. But it stuck by Moscow. It hasn't condemned the invasion. Trade with Russia, for instance, has risen sharply over the course of the war. So you know, this potential of China changing tacks, really, and providing lethal support would be a pretty big, new irritant in U.S.-China relations and in China's relations with the EU. I will note, though, that when asked about it, China's foreign ministry says China wants peace. It accuses the U.S. of spreading false news and of fanning the flames of conflict by providing arms to Ukraine.

INSKEEP: NPR's John Ruwitch, always appreciate your insights. Thanks.

RUWITCH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.