After a year of diplomatic inactivity towards the war in Ukraine, the Chinese government has made demonstrable attempts to look like a peacemaker. But while these moves indicate a change in its behavior, there is little reason to anticipate that China’s efforts will end the war.
China’s 12-point “peace plan” and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s direct phone call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on April 26, 2023, though met with skepticism and criticism in the West, led the international community to believe that China might be able to move the needle far enough to bring the Ukraine war closer to a solution or at least some sort of peace process.
But neither Russia nor Ukraine is ready to negotiate and make concessions. While the conflict is mutually detrimental, there is no clear battlefield stalemate or strategic impasse that would necessitate immediate negotiations. Neither Ukraine nor Russia is exhausted enough to engage in negotiations, with both sides digging in for a long haul.
Beijing’s relative success in brokering a Saudi–Iran agreement should not be extrapolated to the Ukraine war. In the Saudi–Iran case, a pre-established dialogue framework helped China’s late involvement. Iraq and Oman had done much of the substantive work before Beijing stepped in. Most importantly, given the power vacuum in the region, both Iran and Saudi Arabia were willing to reach an agreement with each other.
This does not apply to the case of Ukraine, where the irreconcilability of Kyiv’s and Moscow’s demands and the lack of a strong “give peace a chance” camp in Europe make protracted war the most likely scenario. If China’s mediation attempts are driven by the desire to boost its status, there is a risk for Beijing that a failure to achieve a successful outcome will damage its credibility.
The conflict between Moscow and Kyiv has become an acute manifestation of global great power rivalry, an epicenter of the struggle for influence between Russia and the West rooted in long-term systemic trends.
The Russia–West stand-off in the post-Soviet space surfaced long before the Ukraine war. Soon after the August 2008 Russia–Georgia war, former Russian president Dmitri Medvedev stated that Moscow had demarcated a “traditional sphere of Russian interests,” to which then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden rebutted, “We will not recognize any nation having a sphere of influence.” Russia and the West ruled out any possibility of a positive-sum scenario involving Ukraine. This means that China must mediate not a Russia–Ukraine territorial dispute but a full-blown zero-sum confrontation between Russia and the West — a daunting task.
China’s own precarious position in great power politics and its deteriorating relations with the United States, aggravated by Beijing’s commitment to winning Taiwan back, make Beijing an unlikely candidate to solve tensions between Russia and the West. The crux of the problem is that Russia is China’s only great power ally, and China will rely on Russia in the event of a confrontation with the United States.
Unlike the United States and its allies, China does not want Russia to suffer a devastating defeat in Ukraine. Such a scenario would mean a triumph for the United States’ international order and global influence. This would deal a blow not only to China’s aspirations for a new global order with ‘Chinese characteristics’ and “dreams” but also to the Chinese Communist Party’s legitimacy, especially from the standpoint of unification with Taiwan. If Russia falls in its confrontation with the West, China will become the West’s next target.
In contrast, a protracted war or some form of Russian victory will erode the U.S.-led international order, exposing its flaws and opening new avenues for China’s global rise. China will tread the tightrope of Ukraine geopolitics very carefully, coming up with unfulfillable “peace initiatives” that combine a Russia-friendly stance with a desire to protect its own interests.
Given these considerations and China’s overall knowledge of the conflict, China’s plans to mediate the conflict are questionable. China’s activities regarding Ukraine seem to be dictated by Beijing’s broader foreign policy goals.
By becoming involved in the global “Ukraine project,” Beijing can consolidate a coalition of like-minded developing countries with ambivalent stances on the Ukraine war, such as Brazil and South Africa. China can not only strengthen its influence in the developing world but also circumvent the uncompromisingly binary “barbaric and authoritarian Russia versus civilized and democratic West” structural environment. In doing so, Beijing can expand the room for foreign policy maneuvering, simultaneously undermining the unity and global standing of the West.
Still, China’s “peace initiatives” should not be dismissed entirely despite their limited potential to end the Ukraine war. While they may not bring about peace talks, they can facilitate “talks about talks” and talks about avoiding vertical escalation when the use of tactical nuclear weapons is no longer a distant risk but an imminent threat. Given the gravity of the situation in Ukraine, these possible outcomes make China’s recent moves a worthy endeavor.
This article was originally published on the East Asia Forum.