Chinese leader Xi Jinping faces daunting obstacles if he is serious about trying to help end Russia’s 14-month-old war in Ukraine.
The biggest: Neither side is ready to stop fighting.
Xi’s plan to send an envoy to Ukraine allows his government to deflect criticism of its support for Moscow and pursue a bigger role as a diplomatic force. His announcement Wednesday in a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy prompted optimism Beijing might use its warm relations with Russia’s Vladimir Putin to push for peace. That was followed by skeptical questions about whether Beijing is more focused on ending an invasion it refuses to criticize, or serving its own interests.
China’s starting point is a peace proposal issued in February that called for a ceasefire, negotiations and an end to sanctions against Russia. It offered few details, but repeated Russian accusations that Western governments were to blame for the invasion.
China has good reasons to want to see the war ended. It jolted the Chinese economy by pushing up oil, wheat and other commodity prices. Beijing also warned Wednesday about the dangers of nuclear war, after Russia announced earlier it would move atomic weapons into neighboring Belarus.
“China’s self-interest happens to align with ending the war,” said John Delury, an international relations specialist at Yonsei University in Seoul.
“Beijing has no interest in seeing Russia humiliated, nor is it in China’s interest for Russia to be triumphant,” Delury said. “The best option is a cease-fire and, with it, economic opportunities to participate in Ukraine’s post-war reconstruction.”
Wednesday’s statement gave no indication how China might recommend addressing the questions the two countries are fighting over, including Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula seized by Moscow from Ukraine in 2014.
Playing peacemaker helps Beijing in Europe
By playing peacemaker, Beijing might also be looking to separate European allies from the United States, which Xi accuses of trying to block China’s economic and political rise.
Beijing is trying to repair relations with Europe after an uproar over a Chinese ambassador’s comment that former Soviet republics might not be sovereign countries. That group includes Ukraine, and European Union members Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron have visited Beijing and appealed for help with Ukraine, highlighting the challenges faced by Washington in holding together allies to oppose China’s assertive policies abroad.
“Trying to drive a wedge between the U.S. and European partners is an important goal,” said Alexander Gabuev of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “For that, China needs to pretend that it’s an active force for peace.”
Xi’s call with Zelenskyy might sustain European hopes that China can be persuaded to “wield its influence to help end the war” but is “unlikely to change the Western assessment of Beijing’s stance as one of `pro-Russian neutrality,”' said Eurasia Group analysts in a report.
Xi shows he doesn’t always support Putin
The announcement gives Beijing a chance to show it doesn’t always agree with Moscow, though the differences might be too subtle for Western critics. They complain China helps Putin resist Western sanctions by purchasing Russian oil and gas and provides political support.
Xi’s government sees the Kremlin as a partner in opposing U.S. domination of global affairs. China has used its status as one of five permanent U.N. Security Council members to block efforts to censure Russia.
Xi and Putin said in a joint statement before the February 2022 invasion their governments had a “no limits friendship.” Their navies held joint exercises with Iran in March.
Despite that, the Chinese government says they have a “non-alliance” relationship. Beijing has promised not to supply armaments to either side in the Ukraine war.
“China has never taken one side,” said Da Wei, an international relations specialist at Tsinghua University in Beijing and director of its Center for Strategic and Security Studies.
“Which Western leader has maintained communication with leaders of both parties directly involved in the crisis?” said Da. “I think this call is an indication of China’s fair and impartial objective in promoting peace talks.”
A Chinese statement Wednesday also cited “mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity” as a foundation of relations with Ukraine.
While Russia is trying to move borders by annexing portions of Ukraine, Beijing is intensely sensitive about respecting territorial sovereignty. It says borders must be respected and no country has a right to meddle in another’s affairs.
Beijing’s effort to raise global profile
Positioning itself as a mediator also helps Beijing as it pursues a bigger role in managing global affairs as part of efforts to restore China to what the Communist Party sees as its rightful place as a political, economic and cultural leader.
Beijing should “actively participate in the reform and construction of the global governance system” and promote “global security initiatives,” Xi said in March. A proposal for a “Global Security Initiative” issued in February said China is “ready to conduct bilateral and multilateral security cooperation with all countries.”
Also in March, Saudi Arabia and Iran announced the end of a 7-year diplomatic split following Chinese-organized talks. This year, Xi’s government has also offered to mediate Israeli-Palestinian talks, set up a new Middle East security structure, and help African countries resolve disputes.
If Beijing can organize peace talks, “that backs up Xi Jinping’s ambitions to being a global power,” said Delury.
China’s diplomatic ambition is a reversal from decades of staying out of other countries’ disputes and most international affairs to focus on economic development.
Its peacemaking initiatives are also at odds with confrontational Chinese behavior toward its neighbors in territorial disputes and threats to attack Taiwan, the self-ruled island democracy claimed by Beijing as part of its territory.
Dim hopes for peace talks
Zelenskyy’s government said in a statement his conversation with Xi might lead toward “possible interaction with the aim of establishing a just and sustainable peace for Ukraine.” Zelenskyy said March 29 he had invited Xi to visit, but neither government has indicated whether that might happen.
Despite that, political analysts see little chance for progress. Ukraine is believed to be preparing a new offensive to recapture Russian-occupied territory.
A resolution is “maybe years, even decades, away, because the Russian and Ukrainian positions are still miles apart,” said Gabuev.
Shi Yinhong, an international relations specialist at Renmin University in Beijing, noted Russia’s Foreign Ministry has said peace talks are “almost impossible,” while Zelenskyy stressed to Xi the importance of recovering all captured territory.
“Neither side in the war materially echoed China’s initiative, which fell far short of what they were striving for,” said Shi.