Expert says China could supply Russia with weapons if peace proposal falls through - how that could become problematic for New Zealand

As China calls for a cease-fire to the devastating war in Ukraine, rumours have spiralled that the Chinese government is considering sending lethal aid to help Russia in its invasion of Ukraine.

While Beijing has denied mulling over sending weapons and has claimed it's "neutral" in the war, a foreign expert told Newshub China's position could change if their peace proposal falls through. This could put New Zealand, which already plays a balancing act by nurturing relationships with both China and the US, in a very tricky situation. 

The 12-point document released by China's Foreign Ministry on Friday outlines China's position on the political settlement of the Ukraine crisis and states that dialogue and negotiation are the only viable solution. 

"Conflict and war benefit no one. All parties must stay rational and exercise restraint, avoid fanning the flames and aggravating tensions, and prevent the crisis from deteriorating further or even spiralling out of control," the paper said.

"All parties should support Russia and Ukraine in working in the same direction and resuming direct dialogue as quickly as possible, so as to gradually deescalate the situation and ultimately reach a comprehensive ceasefire."

University of Waikato international law professor Alexander Gillespie told Newshub any attempt at peace is a step in the right direction.

"The peace proposal, I think, it's actually pretty good. It doesn't cover everything but the main thing is they are starting to talk," Dr Gillespie said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said he plans to meet with China's leader Xi Jinping to discuss Beijing's peace proposals.

Zelensky said there were points in the Chinese proposals that he agreed with "and there are those that we don't… But it's something."

The proposal includes "respecting the sovereignty of all countries", an end to sanctions and opposes the use of nuclear weapons.

But the plan does not mention key aspects such as reparations for war crimes or does not say what will happen to the territory Russia has occupied since the invasion.

Dr Gillespie said peace points are a traditional pathway and the negotiation starting point can take months or years to get through.

However, if the plan falls through, Dr Gillespie said China could move from being 'neutral' to unneutral - which could have huge consequences, including for New Zealand. 

"If the peace proposal falls over then that's the most likely time that China may consider providing weapons," he said.

"If the peace proposal falls over then that's the most likely time that China may consider providing weapons."
"If the peace proposal falls over then that's the most likely time that China may consider providing weapons." Photo credit: File

Since invading Ukraine, Russia has repeatedly requested drones and ammunition from China, the sources familiar with the intelligence said according to Reuters, and Chinese leadership has been actively debating over the last several months whether or not to send the lethal aid, the sources added.

As demonstrated by the West supplying Ukraine with weapons, Dr Gillespie said the move usually starts small with providing bullets and helmets and then escalates to tanks and long-range artillery.

Russia and China have not signed any formal military alliance but share deep military ties centred around joint military exercises and developing high-tech weapons.

"That next step of actually providing weapons, or weapons arms trade, would flow easily from that," Dr Gillespie said. "The only thing that's holding it back right now, apart from China trying to be neutral, is the Arms Trade Treaty."

In 2020, China joined the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT), which regulates international trade in conventional weapons.

One of the principles of the treaty was to stop weapons from being sent to countries that will use them to commit human rights violations, including genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Therefore, if China provided Russia, which has been accused of war crimes such as killing, torturing and raping Ukrainian civilians, it would be violating the treaty.

"China so far has abided by it but whether they will continue to do so, I don't know," Dr Gillespie said. 

He said if China were to breach the act it would be one of the justifications for the West, in particular the US, to retaliate.

Dr Gillespie said the West's reaction to China arming Russia would depend on the scale and type of weapons provided - but he expects two outcomes.

The first is the US could ramp up the number of weapons they are sending to Ukraine, further escalating the war.

The second, non-lethal approach, the US could likely take is sanctioning China.

"I expect you would see a push from America to put sanctions on China and that would have implications for countries like New Zealand," Dr Gillespie said. "[The US] would expect us to put sanctions on [China] as well."

That would put New Zealand in a problematic position as China is our biggest trading partner, while New Zealand and the United States are close strategic partners.  

A call to sanction China would bring the age-old juggling act between nurturing our all-important trade while voicing concern about severe human rights abuses back to the forefront.

"It's going to get potentially messy," Dr Gillespie said.