Why China’s Xi is trying to play peacemaker in Ukraine

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s offer to negotiate peace between Russia and Ukraine is a high-risk mission that looks to offer Beijing a most-valued prize — significant prestige and influence in its best efforts to challenge the U.S. as a global leader.

The offer comes on the heels of Beijing achieving a nascent, diplomatic breakthrough between Saudi Arabia and Iran. But it is widely viewed as a smokescreen for China to deepen its relationship with Russia. Just Wednesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin described the ties between Beijing and Moscow as critically important “for the global landscape and the future of humanity.”

And while winning the Nobel Peace Prize is likely a far-fetched pipe dream for the Chinese leader, the public proposal for peace negotiations illustrates how Beijing is focused on flipping the world order away from the U.S. and other democratic countries. 

Still, China holds almost no credibility to be a neutral go-between for Ukraine and Russia, even as Chinese officials have reportedly reached out to Kyiv to organize a call between Xi and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. 

Experts say it is an empty gesture and a tactical move — in one part aimed at saving face in its relationship with a Europe that is increasingly siding with the U.S. in identifying a rising China as a sinister force but is hesitant to decouple from Beijing completely. 

“​​I believe that Xi’s planned call with Zelensky — if it takes place — is to protect the illusion of balance in China’s position on the Ukraine war,” Bonnie Glaser, managing director of the German Marshall Fund’s Indo-Pacific program, wrote in an email to The Hill.

“At a moment when Xi is further strengthening China’s ties with Russia, the Chinese need to do something to avoid further damage to their ties with Europe. There are more risks than benefits in mediating an end to the war as long as neither Putin nor Zelensky are seeking off ramps.”

Russia has shown no sign that it is prepared to withdraw troops from Ukraine. Putin took a provocative trip to Russian-occupied Mariupol in Ukraine’s south shortly after the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for his arrest for war crimes. 

Robert Sutter, professor at the Elliott School of International Affairs, said China has a long history of mediation, but with few successful outcomes or little commitment.  

“What the Chinese don’t do is, they don’t do things that will cost them, they don’t commit,” said Sutter, who has also served as a U.S. intelligence official focused on China.

The Saudi-Iran deal’s stakes

China’s fostering of a surprise breakthrough between Saudi Arabia and Iran announced on March 10 was cautiously welcomed, with U.S. officials and experts pointing to critical roles played by Iraq and Oman hosting talks over the course of two years before Beijing offered the Chinese capital for the public announcement.

But it’s an open question if Saudi and Iran can follow through on reestablishing relations. The commitments outlined in a joint statement are vague and don’t specifically address resolving some of the thorniest issues, such as Riyadh and Tehran’s support for opposing forces in Yemen’s civil war.

And Sutter described the risks of that deal falling apart as low stakes for China. 

“So this deal that they did with Saudi Arabia and Iran, there’s no cost for China in that, that’s a win for them. They had to balance these two powers before, now they don’t have to do that,” he said.

“But I don’t see the win in Russia-Ukraine. I think Putin is very important to them, and so they’re going to keep supporting him.” 

A key visit to Russia

Xi’s recent, three-day state visit to Russia held symbolic and strategic significance.

It was the Chinese president’s first trip out of the country since securing an unprecedented third-term as leader, cementing his reign for at least five more years and overseeing a shuffle of senior officials to further consolidate support. 

“Putin is China’s most important foreign partner, because Xi Jinping is now facing power in the West, important resistance, which he didn’t face before,” Sutter said.

U.S. officials are watching closely whether China and Russia’s deepening ties cross the red line of Beijing committing lethal military support to Moscow, with the Biden administration warning in public — and privately to Chinese officials — of severe consequences if such a move is carried out. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that America’s partners — namely European nations and democracies in the Indo-Pacific — have also warned China off supplying arms to Russia.

Will Europe follow U.S.?

But it is unclear if Ukraine’s supporters can act in concert with the U.S. to impose costs — likely viewed as sanctions — on China if it were to go ahead with supplying military assistance to Russia. 

“Obviously imposing economic sanctions on Chinese entities is tougher than on Russian entities, given the more interconnected nature of the economies,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) said to Blinken during a hearing on Wednesday, “but do we have a break-the-glass plan with our partners in the event China were to provide military assistance to Russia?”

Blinken did not offer a response.

There’s still some hesitancy among European nations to antagonize China too much, said Andrew Scobell, distinguished fellow with the China program at the U.S. Institute of Peace.

But that view is eroding quickly, he added.  

“What I’ve noticed is that there’s a trend over the past seven or eight years that European countries have increasingly become more wary of China and recognizing that, while China presents a great economic opportunity, there’s also a more nefarious negative downside to engaging with China.”

Xi’s placing of Russia on its global relations pedestal is only one of many major criticisms from the democratic community, including that the Chinese president is overseeing an alleged genocide against Uyghur Muslims, is accused of grievous human rights violations in its occupation of Tibet, violated Hong Kong’s democratic autonomy and is setting up for a military takeover of self-governed Taiwan.

Xi’s audience for peacemaking

But China’s play to be a global peacemaker is also aimed at appealing to countries in the southern hemisphere and on the African continent that have stayed on the fence of Russia’s war in Ukraine — nations who view their countries as snubbed by the U.S. in its global-rally of support for Kyiv.

“Most of the Global South, the developing world, is actually quite sympathetic to the Russian position, much as that annoys and perplexes Washington, it’s a fact,” Scobell said.

“China is really playing to that audience, and it’s one that has proved an important bloc of countries for China.”

Still, Beijing does put a priority on establishing a respected, global reputation. It feels snubbed in, for example, the recognition that comes along with global recognition in fields like science, culture — or peace.

“China has a chip on its shoulders about a lot of things, it feels like it’s not given due respect, and this carries over into global awards, including Nobel prizes,” Scobell said.

“China pays attention to these things and you can count the number of Chinese citizens who have won various Nobels on a couple of fingers. It is just dramatic. Would China love to win more? Yes.”

— Updated at 9:30 a.m.

Tags Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky Wang Wenbin Xi Jinping

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