Can China broker peace between Russia and Ukraine?

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China presents itself as neutral in the Ukraine war.

At the same time, Chinese President Xi Jinping has been in Moscow for an extended meeting with Putin – an alleged war criminal.

In an article published in Russian state media to mark the start of Xi’s trip, Xi called his visit “a journey of friendship, cooperation and peace” and promised to “open a new chapter” in bilateral relations.

China has “always maintained an objective and impartial position” on Ukraine and “actively promoted peace talks,” it said.

After China’s successful rapprochement of two arch-rivals, Saudi Arabia and Iran, is peace in Ukraine the next victory for Chinese diplomacy?

Both EU and NATO officials are urging Beijing to take a proactive role and put pressure on Moscow. 

What connects China and Russia?

In addition to a long history as neighbouring countries and a nearly 4,200km border, there are numerous connections between Russia and China.

“It makes enormous sense for China to secure through negotiations, through its alliance with Russia right now, with Putin, to at least avoid trouble along that border,” explains Professor Hans van de Ven, historian and professor of Chinese history at the University of Cambridge.

On the world political stage, China and Russia are united by their opposition to the United States, their rejection of NATO and the Western model of democracy.

In addition, they share common economic interests: China imports raw materials, and Russia relies on importing high-tech products and components from China, explained Dr Saskia Hieber, a lecturer in international politics with a focus on Asia-Pacific at the Academy for Political Education in Tutzing Germany, in an interview with Euronews.

But this particularly strong link between Russia and China is based mainly on the close relationship between the two presidents, explains Steven Tsang, a political scientist and director of the SOAS China Institute in London.

“There is a very strong personal bond and mutual respect and admiration between both Putin and Xi Jinping,” said Tsang.

What role has China played in the Ukraine war so far?

China’s role so far can be described as a balancing act. By declaring itself “neutral” to some degree while remaining close to Putin and Russia, China has created a position that “inevitably creates distance between themselves and the United States, but at the same time not completely alienating European countries,” according to Professor van de Ven, who spoke of a “complex manoeuvre.”

Almost a month ago, China presented a 12-point plan for peace in Ukraine which the European Union criticised since it did not “distinguish between aggressor and victim” but put the parties on the same level, said EU foreign affairs representative Josep Borrell on the anniversary of the war.

Saskia Hieber classifies the Chinese points paper as “not very concrete.” It was “perceived with attentive distance in Moscow,” according to the China expert.

The opinions of the experts differ as to what China is actually saying with the first point: respect for the sovereignty of all countries. Hieber sees a clear formulation that Beijing is demanding that Moscow respect Ukrainian territory.

However, “China’s position paper simply says that territorial integrity should be respected, without saying whose territorial integrity that is,” says Professor Tsang.

Where did the initiative for this new role of China as a peace broker come from?

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia and Iran declared they would reopen diplomatic channels after several years of silence. This rapprochement between the arch-enemies, which is crucial for the Middle East, was negotiated by China – at the initiative of President Xi.

“Xi Jinping is trying to find a new role for China in the world,” van de Ven said. Now, Beijing is presenting itself as a mediator in the Ukraine war – the first time China has interfered in European politics in this way.

Van de Ven considers direct interference in the war – China refers to it as a “crisis” in its 12-point plan – to be unlikely, even if the United States has indications that China could supply Russia with weapons. Beijing’s main concern is to signal a willingness to play a proactive role in peace, Tsang said.

While China has an interest in ensuring that the global economy and international trade relations and supply chains function, it fundamentally wants to stay out of the Ukraine war, says Saskia Hieber.

Can Beijing play a serious mediating role?

As long as neither Ukraine nor Russia is willing to talk about peace and seek a solution on the battlefield, China cannot play a role in the peace process either, according to Professor van de Ven. “I think talks are simply not an option at the moment.”

Saskia Hieber agrees with this opinion. While China was committed to peace and negotiations, she said, it ignored Moscow’s position “that it’s not possible to renounce hostilities and warfare at this point.”

China cannot play a mediating role, she said, “because it does not condemn the war, because it sides with Moscow. Because it does not openly say that it is a war of aggression, an illegal war of aggression.”

An end to the war could be in China’s interests from other points of view, as well: Chinese expertise could play an important role in the reconstruction of Ukraine.

“China could play a positive role if it wants to. It is very well suited to do so, given its ability to execute major projects and deliver them quickly,” van de Ven said.

But, while Beijing could benefit from this situation, a leading role in reconstruction and China’s presence in Ukraine would “create all kinds of new anxieties” in Europe, van de Ven believes.

How much pressure can China put on Moscow?

Neither the EU nor the United States can act as mediators, EU foreign affairs envoy Josep Borrell told the Spanish daily El Mundo. “Diplomacy cannot be only European or American, Chinese diplomacy must also play a role here,” Borrell said.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is also increasing pressure on Beijing: “China must begin to understand the perspective of Kyiv and establish contact with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy if he wants to be serious about peace. Beijing, on the other hand, has not condemned the illegal invasion of Russia.”

How likely is it that Beijing will increase pressure on Moscow to bring about a quick end to the war?

Saskia Hieber speaks of the “huge dilemma” that the war in Ukraine has put China in.

The country is not interested in having a strong, victorious neighbour in Russia that wins the war triumphantly, nor does it want Russia to fail miserably and emerge from the war completely weakened, Hieber said, hence the initiative for peaceful negotiations.

“If the EU expects Xi Jinping to actually play a role to make peace, genuinely, I think the EU is misguided,” Steven Tsang said.

According to him, the fact that Xi Jinping travelled to Russia on a state visit and met Putin over an extended period of time while planning to (possibly) talk virtually with President Zelenskyy shows that Xi is not seeking an impartial solution.