China wants to be a peace broker in the war between Ukraine and Russia

  • China was keen to position itself as a peace broker to end the war between Russia and Ukraine.
  • However, it has visibly moved closer to Russia as the war has progressed, refusing to condemn or criticize the ongoing aggression against Ukraine.
  • Political analysts question whether China has the diplomatic skills — and remarkable neutrality — needed to bring Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table.
  • Analysts do not view China as an entirely “honest broker”.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping leave after a reception in honor of the Chinese leader’s visit to Moscow, in the Kremlin, on March 21, 2023.

Grigory Sysoev | Sputnik | via Reuters

China had been keen to position itself as a peace broker to end the war between Russia and Ukraine since the invasion began, and offered to mediate between the two countries shortly after Russian forces were pushed across the border.

But Beijing has remained conspicuously close to Russia as the war progresses, refusing to condemn or criticize the ongoing armed aggression against Ukraine. He is ideologically aligned with Moscow on an anti-Western stance, both of which have declared their desire to see a “multipolar world”.

And despite a number of calls with Russian President Vladimir Putin and even a visit to Moscow in March, Chinese President Xi Jinping has only contacted his Ukrainian counterpart for the first time in recent weeks.

During the call, Xi said he would send special representatives to Ukraine and hold talks with all parties on reaching a ceasefire and a peaceful solution to what Beijing calls the “crisis”.

Attempts to mediate a peace deal intensify this week with China’s special representative for Eurasian affairs, Li Hui, who is scheduled to visit Ukraine, Russia and several other European countries for talks “on a political settlement of the Ukrainian crisis,” according to China’s foreign ministry. He said Friday.

There is no doubt that China wants to end the war between Russia and Ukraine soon. It is widely believed that Beijing perceives the war’s unpredictable nature, unknown endpoint, and global economic instability caused by the conflict as highly unwanted side effects.

But as it tries to position itself as an honest peace broker who can bring an end to one of Europe’s bloodiest conflicts in decades — and that pits Russia (and indeed China, at times) against the wider West — there are question marks over China’s perceived neutrality and diplomatic skills, And ultimately, her end game as a medium.

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Political analysts and China-watchers point out that, at the end of the day, Beijing doesn’t really care who “wins” the war — or what form a peace agreement will take. What matters to Beijing, they say, is that it becomes the international partner that brings Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table and brokers an end to the war.

“China is more focused on winning the peace than it is on who wins the war between Russia and Ukraine,” Ryan Haas, a China expert at the Brookings Institution and former director for Asia on the Obama administration’s National Security Council, told CNBC.

“Beijing would like to have a voice in shaping any future European security architecture. Beijing would also like to be seen as vital to Ukraine’s reconstruction and as a key actor in Europe’s broader recovery from conflict.”

China is keen to build on recent successes in global diplomacy, particularly the mediation between Iran and Saudi Arabia that prompted the regional rivals to resume diplomatic ties and reopen embassies in the two countries.

Analysts note that another attempt by China at a global diplomatic tour between Russia and Ukraine is not devoid of self-interest.

“Of course, China is not entering this diplomatic campaign because of altruistic concerns,” Zheng Chen, a political science professor at the University of Albany, State University of New York, told CNBC on Wednesday.

As China increasingly presents itself as a great power, it has every incentive to project its diplomatic muscle as a global mediator, especially after its recent success in mediating between Iran and Saudi Arabia. In addition, China could further bind Russia to its side if it can mediate. In a deal that saves Russia’s face.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks with Chinese President Xi Jinping over the phone line, in Kiev on April 26, 2023.

Ukrainian Presidential Press Service | Reuters

Another happy byproduct of China’s intervention is that it might draw in the Global South, a term generally used to designate developing countries in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Oceania, “that have largely taken no sides in the conflict, as well as some European powers that do not wish to see a prolonged war.” Term worsening in Europe.

To gain support from these countries, China wants to burnish its image as a peacemaker rather than the US approach of ‘adding fuel to the fire’.

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China’s bid as a peace broker is not the first in the war. Turkey has also positioned itself as a mediator between the warring sides, helping broker a vital grain export deal and trying early in the war for talks.

However, these broke down, with both sides having “red lines”—essentially ceding lost (or gained) territory—that they could not cross.

It is uncertain whether China has the diplomatic skills to bring both Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table. China’s support for Russia will not go unnoticed in Kiev, as analysts say it hurt Beijing’s perception as an “honest broker” from the start.

“There is a huge asymmetry between Sino-Russian relations and Sino-Ukrainian relations,” Alicja Pachulska, a political fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told CNBC on Tuesday.

She noted, “It took Xi Jinping 14 months to have a phone call with Zelensky, while at the same time China’s top leadership had more than 20 high-level interactions with the Russian leadership.”

“China has not recognized the aggressor – Russia – and continues to blame the US and NATO for the war. Any kind of meaningful ‘help’ on the part of China would require Beijing to acknowledge Ukraine’s perspective on this war and the Ukrainian proxy, and that is highly unlikely given to China’s strategic interests in this war – namely the weakening of the US-led international order and the discrediting of liberal democracies more broadly.”

CNBC has contacted the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comment and has not yet received a response.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands during a signing ceremony after their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21, 2023.

Vladimir Astapkovich | AFP | Getty Images

Analysts note that while China’s approach to the warring parties has been lopsided, its apparent proximity to Moscow can be leveraged to the advantage of both sides.

Ian Bremer, founder and president of the Eurasia Group, said in emailed comments that the war gave China “a chance in global diplomacy,” noting that “Xi has more leverage over Putin than anyone else.”

Chen of the University at Albany agreed that while China’s perceived lack of neutrality could be a weakness, it could actually be a trump card.

“China is widely seen as too friendly to Russia to be truly ‘neutral’ when it comes to potential mediation in the dispute. However, precisely because China is one of Russia’s few remaining international partners and has provided Russia with vital diplomatic and economic support since then,” Chen said. “The invasion has the potential to bring Russia to the negotiating table and influence Russia’s position in ending the conflict.”

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No one underestimates the challenges any potential peace broker faces.

Fifteen months of war have hardened Ukraine and shown it will not move on to Russia. For President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, the stakes are too high for him to surrender territorial gains, particularly when it comes to the regions where Russia lies most. Like Crimea, which it annexed in 2014.

China has already proposed a “peace plan” for Ukraine But it lacks substance and tangible steps towards a ceasefire and settlement.

Ukraine says it will not accept anything less than the full withdrawal of all Russian forces from occupied lands and the restoration of its territorial integrity, including Crimea and four other regions Russia announced its annexation last year, although it is still incomplete. occupy any of them.

Ukrainian soldiers of the 80th Brigade fire artillery in the direction of Bakhmut as the Russo-Ukrainian war continues in Donetsk Oblast, Ukraine, on April 13, 2023.

Anadolu Agency | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Ukraine will likely want to know how to continue its current counter-offensive before China makes any offer to broker a peace deal, with the caveat that any agreement could involve ceding territory to Russia.

Certainly, Ukrainian analysts are skeptical that China can or will help Ukraine.

“They will propose some ceasefire agreement or peace agreement with Russian terms, and of course this is not preferable to us,” Oleksandr Musiyenko, a military expert and head of the Center for Military and Legal Studies in Kiev, told CNBC.

He added that Ukraine can only accept a peace agreement that respects the country’s territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence, and before any agreement can be reached, Russian forces will have to end its occupation.

Musienko said he did not expect that “the Chinese peace agreements and the draft peace agreements will mean anything good for us because they look at Ukraine from a Russian point of view.”

“They are not objective in this case,” he added.

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