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Peace broker or weapons dealer? China’s latest balancing act in the war in Ukraine

A peace plan, reports of potential weapons sales, and an ‘eternal friendship’ with Russia make for a confusing picture.

From the day Russia invaded Ukraine, the geopolitics of the war have mattered almost as much as events on the battlefield. And for all the focus on the U.S. and its NATO allies and their robust support for the Ukrainian resistance, China’s role has loomed large. And it’s not always clear where exactly President Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party stand when it comes to the war.

To date, the balance has tilted toward Moscow; China has refused to criticize Putin, kept up a busy wartime commerce with Russia, amplified Russian falsehoods about Ukraine and placed blame for the war at the feet of the NATO alliance. Now China is in effect nominating itself as a neutral broker in a possible resolution to the conflict.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

This “neutral” stance, however, does not prevent China from playing a major and indispensable role in propping up Russia’s embattled economy, which contributes directly to Russia’s war efforts. It also does not prevent China from carrying out joint military exercises and joint military patrols, or holding high-level meetings and even summits with Russia, which thwarts the West’s efforts to make Russia an international pariah. In this sense, China has provided Russia with a vital lifeline in this time of crisis.

Once it turned out that Ukraine was successfully resisting, and the West had united quite unexpectedly behind Ukraine, the Chinese feeling about the war started changing. On the one hand, China is trapped in this attempt to position itself as a neutral party — and this is what I would say Beijing attempts to do vis-à-vis the external world. But on the other hand, Beijing struggles to avoid any association with the West against Russia.

This position, which China presents as neutrality, in the West is read as support for Russia. This is why the Chinese narratives, the official discourses, are repeating Russian points, blaming the U.S., blaming NATO for the war, and so on. In this sense, I would say China’s trying to walk this line since it turned out that the war was going to last longer than we expected, than Russia expected.

One instance is a project, the Trans-Mongolian Gas Pipeline, which Russia has lobbied quite strongly for, and which will be a clear signal that China is offering an alternative market to the European gas market. But so far, Mongolia says “yes,” Russia is willing to proceed with the project, but China still does not agree to a contract. I see it as the absence of China’s strategic support.

Nevertheless, there are numerous other ways in which China could boost Russia’s military capability, including supplying various nonlethal aid and dual-use materials and components, many of which have origins that are hard to trace. These options are much less costly, and therefore likely to remain China’s preference. All this, of course, does not mean there aren’t internal discussions of other options, as reported by The Wall Street Journal. The U.S.’s revelation of this intelligence, I think, might be for the purpose of deterring Beijing from actually pursuing that path, and implicitly discrediting Xi’s “neutral” peace plan.

But at the same time, we have also seen the Chinese as unwilling to openly support Russia in circumventing or bypassing sanctions. While I wouldn’t exclude that there are some weapons deliveries to Russia, I think, from Beijing’s perspective, it is still too costly. Perhaps not that costly in relations with the U.S., because I would think the Chinese elite sees the conflict with the U.S. as rather a permanent feature of China’s position in the world. But it would be much more problematic when it comes to Europe, because in my understanding, China still hopes to either drive a wedge or keep Europe at a certain distance from the U.S., especially when it comes to a potential joint trans-Atlantic policy toward China.

As I said, I wouldn’t exclude such arms supplies; but I would say that their potential costs outweigh benefits for China at this stage.

In the coming months, it is likely that China will come up with more specific plans to broker peace. The first point in the current document [”Respecting the Sovereignty of All Countries”] is apparently an attempt to reassure Ukraine and the West that China does not support Russia’s territorial annexations. The points which follow, however, point to a pause to NATO’s future expansion and lifting sanctions against Russia. These points hardly dispel the West’s impression of China’s bias toward Russia and will be difficult for Ukraine to accept under present circumstances. How to convince Ukraine of Beijing’s sincerity and true neutrality will remain a challenge.

But I think China’s trying to square the circle. On the one hand, it wants to appeal to Europe and pull Europe a bit away from the U.S. But at the same time, it doesn’t want to criticize Russia in any way. This is why I think it leads to this very vague and general paper where China doesn’t take an explicit position, but rather tries to hide behind general formulations which on their own may be correct and rightful, but when you apply them, they don’t work.

China might have been more explicit about the need for Russia to do certain things. Or, in practical terms, China’s leader might finally talk to President Zelenskyy. The Chinese leadership has avoided any bilateral talks, any phone calls with Zelenskyy, which also shows those difficulties — how China has maneuvered in between trying not to be associated with Russia, but at the same time, not wanting to suggest the outside world that their ties with Russia are somehow fragile because of this war.

I think this is one of the problems of this position paper: Each side can read it as they want, or as it is convenient for their aims in this war.

Other than the two sides of the conflict, China has two target audiences. One is Europe, which has been rightly concerned about China’s role in supporting Russia and contemplating “decoupling” from China amid growing U.S.-China tension. Knowing that most European countries are averse to a protracted conflict, China hopes to be seen as playing a proactive role in ending the conflict while reassuring Europe that continuing engagement with China will not undermine European interests. The other major target audience is the Global South, which so far has not taken a side. China has endeavored to be seen as a leader of the Global South. Proposing a peace plan, which is dismissed by the West, will make China appear to be the more reasonable and pro-peace party as opposed to the U.S.’s “adding fuel to the fire.” In sum, Xi’s peace plan is fundamentally driven by China’s own interests.

In this sense, the fact that China is coming up with a peace plan now is more significant than the substance of the plan itself, which is unlikely to make either side happy. As the current status quo on the battlefield favors Russia [because Russia is still occupying large chunks of Ukrainian territory], a call to “freeze” the conflict as it is, even if in a demilitarized fashion, is still biased toward Russia. China’s point, however, is not for Ukraine and the West to accept this proposal, but to embellish its “neutral” and “pro-peace” image in order to appeal to Europe and the Global South.

Secondly, it is China’s turn. Apart from the period of the pandemic, when both leaders didn’t travel, they saw each other every year. Even before Putin’s return to the presidency. So in this sense, Xi Jinping’s not going to Moscow would have been read in the West very clearly as a signal of tensions in the relationship, and even if tensions are there, both sides would work hard to sweep them under the carpet.

So I think in this sense, Xi doesn’t have a choice. He needs to go to Moscow to demonstrate the relations are still very good and normal despite the war. But the fact that he’s not rushing there may be a sign that they are once again trying to strike this balance between cordial relations with Russia and attempts to be neutral.

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