Why is China reluctant to lead mediation between Russia and Ukraine?

As the Ukraine crisis drags on, some countries have called on China to play a leadership role in ending the war soon. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba requested China to use its influence to stop Russia’s invasion of his country. EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell suggested that China is more suitable than other powers to play such a role. China itself has offered to mediate between Russia and Ukraine. 

There are good reasons why China should be an honest broker in this crisis. Notably, China has suffered from poor international image in recent years due to its controversial policies in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and its assertive diplomacy. Successfully mediating a major international crisis could significantly boost China’s global standing. Peace in Europe also contributes to China’s economic stability.

In the early 2000s China played such a leadership role in helping defuse tensions in the Korean Peninsula by hosting the Six-Party Talks to denuclearize North Korea. It was praised for leading such multilateral negotiations, despite limited success in its efforts.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China has been conducting phone and video diplomacy with President Xi Jinping and Foreign Minister Wang Yi calling for a ceasefire and diplomatic solution in conversations with their foreign counterparts respectively. China appears willing to work with other countries to tackle this humanitarian crisis. 

However, China was pressured heavily into making its offer to play mediator. Despite its public announcement this week, it remains reluctant to play a major leadership role in mediation due to key internal and external constraints.

First of all, the conflict is not just between Russia and Ukraine; it is between Russia and the United States and the West in general. Western leaders and media have labeled the conflict as that between democracy and autocracy, and China has been conveniently included in the autocracy camp.

The sorry state of China’s relations with the West, and the United States in particular, gives China little desire to get deeply involved now. Russia is the only friendly country towards China among major powers at a time when a hostile Western bloc is countering China’s rise. Under current international conditions, the best one can expect from China is its distancing from Russia’s aggression at the UN and its moral support for Ukraine’s sovereignty. Out of its own national interests, China is unlikely to go further, let alone abandon Russia.

Second, it’s a politically sensitive moment in China. Barring major disruptions, Xi Jinping is expected to be confirmed for a third term as the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party at the 20th Party Congress this fall and his third term as president of China in spring 2023. He seems to have strong backing within the party and does not need additional credentials from a foreign policy achievement. Mediating in a messy crisis is not guaranteed to succeed, and a failed mediation will only dent Xi’s stature at home. He will act cautiously before the extension of his leadership position is secured.

In addition, many Chinese analysts believe that the crisis was created by the Europeans and Americans and therefore must be resolved by themselves. Western powers’ call for China to lead the mediation is to shirk responsibility.

Finally, Beijing has become increasingly concerned about the future of Taiwan. Despite clear differences between Ukraine and Taiwan, both are portrayed to be at the frontlines against giant authoritarian neighbors. Judging from the swift and robust international response to Russia, Beijing fears its potential military takeover of Taiwan in the future will most likely elicit even stronger and more unified global reactions, given Taiwan’s higher strategic value to the United States.

Indeed, President Biden’s decision to dispatch a delegation headed by former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen to Taiwan in the middle of the current crisis sent a powerful message of U.S. commitment to defend Taiwan. Such moves will aggravate Beijing’s worry that the United States is only paying lip service to “one China.” If China feels it may lose Taiwan permanently, its knee-jerk reaction will be to become better prepared for the U.S. intervention in the Taiwan Strait. 

The recently published U.S. Indo-Pacific Strategy views China as the major competitor that threatens U.S. dominance in the region. Part of the justification for the Biden administration’s decision to rule out U.S. military intervention in Ukraine is to remain focused on the Indo-Pacific. It is naïve to believe that China’s mediation in a European crisis will change U.S. policy towards China or improve U.S.-China relations significantly.

The incentives for China to lead the mediation efforts in the Russia-Ukraine conflict are overwhelmed by its strategic calculations of international and domestic priorities. Like other powers, China puts its own interests first. Until China, the United States, the EU, and other major powers set aside their own interests to prioritize an end to this humanitarian disaster, the people of Ukraine are likely left in the balance.

Zhiqun Zhu is a professor of political science and international relations at Bucknell University in Pennsylvania.

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