China as peacemaker in the Ukraine War? The US and Europe are skeptical

Zelenskyy has said he would enter peace talks only if Putin withdrew his troops from Ukrainian territory, including the Crimean Peninsula
Last Updated : 20 March 2023, 04:15 IST
Last Updated : 20 March 2023, 04:15 IST

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As Xi Jinping, China’s leader, prepares to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow this week, Chinese officials have been framing his trip as a mission of peace, one where he will seek to “play a constructive role in promoting talks” between Russia and Ukraine, as a government spokesperson in Beijing put it.

But US and European officials are watching for something else altogether — whether Xi will add fuel to the full-scale war that Putin began more than a year ago.

US officials say China is still considering giving weapons — mainly artillery shells — to Russia for use in Ukraine. And even a call by Xi for a cease-fire would amount to an effort to strengthen Putin’s battlefield position, they say, by leaving Russia in control of more territory than when the invasion began.

A cease-fire now would be “effectively the ratification of Russian conquest,” John Kirby, a White House spokesperson, said Friday. “It would in effect recognize Russia’s gains and its attempt to conquer its neighbor’s territory by force, allowing Russian troops to continue to occupy sovereign Ukrainian territory.”

“It would be a classic part of the China playbook,” he added, for Chinese officials to come out of the meeting claiming “we’re the ones calling for an end to the fighting and nobody else is.”

In an article published in a Russian newspaper Sunday, Xi wrote that China had pursued “efforts to promote reconciliation and peace negotiations.”

Skepticism of one of Xi’s stated goals pervades thinking in Washington and some European capitals. US intelligence agencies have concluded that relations between China and Russia have deepened during the war, even as Russia has become isolated from many other nations.

The two countries continue to do joint military exercises, and Beijing has joined Moscow in regularly denouncing NATO. China remains one of the biggest buyers of Russian oil, which has helped Moscow finance its invasion.

Chinese officials have at no point condemned the invasion. Instead, they have said ambiguously that all nations must respect each other’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. They have worked with Russian diplomats to block international statements condemning the war, including at gatherings of the Group of 20 countries in India in February and March.

While some Chinese officials see Putin’s war as destabilizing, they recognize a greater priority in foreign policy: the need to buttress Russia so the two nations can present a united front against their perceived adversary, the United States.

Xi made his views clear when he said earlier this month at an annual political meeting in Beijing that “Western countries led by the United States have implemented all-around containment, encirclement and suppression of China, which has brought unprecedented severe challenges to our country’s development.”

But China remains firmly anchored in the global economy, and Xi and his aides want to avoid being seen as malign actors on the world stage, especially in the eyes of Europe, a major trade partner. Some analysts say Xi has adopted the guise of peacemaker, claiming he is on a mission to end the war to provide cover for efforts to strengthen his partnership with Putin, whom the International Criminal Court on Friday formally accused of war crimes in an arrest warrant.

Xi and Putin have a strong personal affinity and have met 39 times since Xi became China’s leader in 2012.

Putin called Xi a “dear old friend” in an article published in a Chinese newspaper Sunday, saying the two enjoyed the “warmest relationship.”

China’s release last month of a 12-point statement of broad principles on the war was an attempt at creating a smoke screen of neutrality during planning for Xi’s trip, some analysts say.

“I think China is trying to muddy the picture, to say we’re not there to support Russia, we’re there to support peace,” said Yun Sun, a scholar of China’s foreign policy at the Stimson Center in Washington.

“There’s an intrinsic need for China to maintain or protect the health of its relationship with Russia,” she said, adding that a senior Chinese official had told her that geopolitics and US intransigence were driving Beijing’s approach to the relationship — not love of Russia.

Sun said China’s recent mediation of an initial diplomatic rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran had boosted notions of China as a peacemaker. But that situation was entirely different from the Ukraine war — the two Middle Eastern nations had already been in talks for years to try to restart formal diplomacy, and China entered the picture as both sides reached for a deal. China is not a close partner of either country and has a very specific economic interest in preventing the two from escalating their hostilities — it buys large amounts of oil from both.

When Putin visited Xi in Beijing right before the start of the Ukraine war in February 2022, their governments proclaimed a “no-limits” partnership in a 5,000-word statement. The two men saw each other again in September at a security conference in Samarkand, Uzbekistan. Xi has not talked to Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the president of Ukraine, since the war began, much less asked for his perspective on peace talks.

Zelenskyy has said he would enter peace talks only if Putin withdrew his troops from Ukrainian territory. That includes the Crimean Peninsula, which the Russian military seized in 2014, and the Donbas region, where that same year Russian troops stoked a pro-Russia separatist insurgency.

Zelenskyy has said he would welcome a chance to speak with Xi, and some Ukrainian officials hold out hope that China will eventually exercise its leverage over Russia to get Putin to withdraw his troops. But China has not indicated it would make any such move.

On Thursday, Qin Gang, the foreign minister of China, spoke by phone with Dmytro Kuleba, the foreign minister of Ukraine, and stressed that the warring sides should “resume peace talks” and “return to the track of political settlement,” according to a Chinese summary of the conversation.

In an interview with the BBC before Xi’s visit was announced, Kuleba said he believed China was neither ready to arm Russia nor bring about peace. “The visit to Moscow in itself is a message, but I don’t think it will have any immediate consequences,” he said.

Analysts in Washington concur. “I don’t think China can serve as a fulcrum on which any Ukraine peace process could move,” said Ryan Hass, a former US diplomat to China and White House official who is a scholar at the Brookings Institution.

Hass added that China would have a role as part of a signing or guaranteeing group for any eventual peace deal and would be critical to Ukraine’s reconstruction. “I believe Zelenskyy understands this, which is why he has been willing to exercise so much patience with China and with Xi personally,” he said.

European officials have had varying attitudes toward China, and some prioritize preserving trade ties with Beijing. But China’s alignment with Russia throughout the war has spurred growing suspicion and hostility in many corners of Europe. On Friday, some officials reacted warily to the announcement of Xi’s trip to Moscow — they saw it as a further sign of China’s friendship if not alliance with Russia, as well as an effort by China to present itself as a mediator in the war.

Wang Yi, China’s top foreign policy official, stressed the need for peace talks at the Munich Security Conference late last month before a stop in Moscow. He used language that appeared aimed at peeling European nations away from the United States.

“We need to think calmly, especially our friends in Europe, about what efforts should be made to stop the warfare; what framework should there be to bring lasting peace to Europe; what role should Europe play to manifest its strategic autonomy,” he said.

He suggested that Washington wanted the war to continue to further weaken Russia. “Some forces might not want to see peace talks materialize,” he said. “They don’t care about the life and death of Ukrainians or the harms on Europe. They might have strategic goals larger than Ukraine itself. This warfare must not continue.”

But China’s 12-point statement did not go over well in Europe. And many European officials, like their Ukrainian and American counterparts, are convinced that early talks on a peace settlement will be at the expense of Ukrainian sovereignty.

Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said China’s stance was anything but neutral.

“It is not a peace plan, but principles that they shared,” she said of China’s statement. “You have to see them against a specific backdrop. And that is the backdrop that China has taken sides, by signing for example an unlimited friendship right before Russia’s invasion in Ukraine started.”

China’s regular denunciations of NATO make European officials bristle. In its position paper, China said “the security of a region should not be achieved by strengthening or expanding military blocs” — a statement that supports Putin’s claim that he had to invade Ukraine because of threats that included NATO expansion.

The Chinese position “builds on a misplaced focus on the so-called ‘legitimate security interests and concerns’ of parties, implying a justification for Russia’s illegal invasion, and blurring the roles of the aggressor and the aggressed,” said Nabila Massrali, a spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy at the European Union.

Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO secretary-general, put it more simply: “China doesn’t have much credibility,” especially because “they have not been able to condemn the illegal invasion of Ukraine.”

Published 20 March 2023, 04:15 IST

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