Can China really play a role in ending the war in Ukraine?

Xi Jinping’s visit to Moscow raised questions about whether China can be a peacemaker while maintaining its close relationship with Russia.

All of which raises the question: What chance do Xi and China have to play a real role as peacemakers?

What Ukraine and Russia want

Answering that question begins with looking at what demands the two sides would likely bring to the negotiating table — demands that China would have to somehow help reconcile.

From Ukraine’s perspective, not only would territorial compromises encourage future Russian aggression, they would also undermine the concepts of territorial integrity and international law.

“There’s no way that Ukrainian people would be able to accept any concessions which would legitimize Russian aggression,” Olha Stefanishyna, a deputy prime minister of Ukraine, recently told Grid. “I don’t think this is in the interest of any party, including NATO itself.”

Enter China?

If any country is to close the yawning gap between Russia and Ukraine at this moment in the war, experts say China may be the best fit — for a variety of reasons.

For one thing, China has clearly nominated itself for the role and has strong motivations of its own for entering the fray. The war, and China’s coziness with Russia throughout, have been “draining China’s diplomatic credibility,” said Yun Sun, China director at the Stimson Center, a D.C.-based think tank. China would like to get back on a better footing with European Union nations, if not the U.S. The economic fallout from the war has also hit China; as China begins its anticipated economic rebound following the “zero-covid” era, the government would certainly appreciate a global tail wind.

Experts also told Grid that no other country is a clearer choice at this point.

“China is far from the perfect mediator as it is widely seen as biased toward Russia,” said Cheng Chen, a professor of political science at University at Albany, State University of New York. “At the same time, it is hard to think of one good candidate, as most major powers have taken sides.”

And while its close ties to Russia have been viewed by many in the West as a disqualifier for China as a mediator, that relationship may also be China’s greatest asset.

“If Russia felt China was at the table, they don’t have to face only adversaries,” Wang said. “That will make them more comfortable and make both sides be more rational and make some relaxation of their positions.”

It’s not just about putting Russia at ease, though. Perhaps more important, China holds significant leverage over Russia as its largest trading partner and a critical economic and diplomatic lifeline during the war. In other words, Xi Jinping brings an ability to make demands of Vladimir Putin. That’s not something other leaders have.

“China is probably one of the very few states that can try to convince Russia to reach a certain compromise, and this is why I think Ukraine would still enter such talks if China decides to play a major role,” Marcin Kaczmarski, a lecturer in security studies at the University of Glasgow, told Grid.

China also has a long-standing relationship with Ukraine. Although China-Russia relations have certainly been stronger, China has been Ukraine’s largest trading partner, a commerce based primarily on its imports of Ukrainian iron, grain, and seed oil. While Xi hasn’t spoken to Zelenskyy since Russia invaded, the two are expected to speak soon. The Ukrainian president has welcomed China’s efforts — in principle at least — while emphasizing that a Russian withdrawal was a bottom line for peace.

One more answer to the “Why China?” question: For all the skepticism Xi’s peace mission has generated in the U.S. and Europe, there are many governments around the world that would support negotiations even if they involved a far less confrontational approach to Moscow. As Grid has reported, Putin and Russia are hardly pariahs on the world stage, even after Russia’s invasion and its brutal acts in Ukraine. India, Brazil, South Africa, the nations of the Persian Gulf — these are just some of the influential nations around the globe that would likely support a Chinese-led peace initiative.

The limitations of Pax Sinica

There are a few issues with the China-as-savior scenario. First, China may care less than it appears about leading a negotiation process. Sun argues that China’s top priority is maintaining a good relationship with Russia as a bulwark against the West; brokering peace would be icing on the cake — but not worth pursuing if it upended that relationship. Speaking of Xi’s visit to Moscow, she said, “I think the peacemaking part of it — that’s only an add-on in order to dilute or to neutralize the image of Xi Jinping going to Moscow to support Russia.”

As long as Russia isn’t losing the war, it could be argued that a continuation of the conflict is actually to China’s benefit; for one thing, it keeps the U.S. military focused on the European theater rather than Taiwan and the South China Sea.

“I don’t think that at this stage the Chinese leadership sees the need to push Russia for any solution,” Kaczmarski said.

Even if China has decided that leading a peacemaking effort is a core priority, experts told Grid that China may find it difficult or impossible to wear two hats: neutral mediator and “no limits” friend to Russia. “It is one thing to have leverage, it is another to be willing to actually use it,” said Chen. “Given that China’s relationship with the U.S. and the West has been on a downward trajectory, it is unlikely that China would be willing to put full pressure on Russia on reaching a deal with Ukraine. ”

Again, China’s February position paper points to some of these strains.

“The whole proposal is built around this impression that there is a certain conflict and the two sides should take similar mirroring steps,” said Kaczmarski. “There is no one to blame, they just need to find a solution to this conflict.”

Specifically, many doubt whether China will press Russia forcefully to withdraw from territory it now controls. While China’s position paper did recognize the principle of “respecting the sovereignty of all countries,” and China has never formally recognized Russia’s claim to Crimea or the annexed territories in eastern Ukraine, many experts expressed doubt over how aggressive China would be.

“I think that is the biggest illusion for observers — that somehow China’s is going go to Moscow, and preach for peace, and convince Russia to withdraw,” Sun said.

News from the battlefield may inform China’s next moves. China may be motivated to push harder for peace — and Russian concessions — if its northern neighbor’s fortunes turned.

“For me a kind of starting point would be another successful Ukrainian counteroffensive, but one which would make substantial territorial gains,” Kaczmarski said.

In that event, China might be able to push for some middle ground on the question of territory. Many analysts have argued that Crimea is likely to be out of the question for Russia, but Wang suggested that if the two sides started negotiating, they might consider making the annexed eastern territories autonomous. For his part, Kaczmarski believes China would likely have to convince Russia to return the annexed territories to Ukraine and perhaps hold an internationally supervised referendum in Crimea.

Getting a deal done

Given all of this, it is perhaps most likely that China would be one of many players engaged in a peace process. Others would likely include the EU, U.S. and U.N., and maybe Turkey, experts said.

That said, despite all the caveats and challenges, the experts Grid surveyed said China’s efforts should not be dismissed because — even if those efforts alone don’t lead to a resolution — they could help pave the road to peace. With the war having already claimed hundreds of thousands of casualties and the threat of the use of nuclear weapons always looming, that’s no small thing.

Sun said even small steps are worth pursuing, “If Xi is indeed able to convince the two sides to start a conversation, not even on the highest level, even just on the working level, just starting to talk about the de-escalation of tensions or the deflation of the conflict — if Xi Jinping is able to convince the two sides to have this type of conversation out of his trip, I would consider the trip a success already.”

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