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China may want to broker peace in Ukraine, but won’t be a neutral player

Alexei Druzhinin, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin pose for a photo prior to talks in Beijing on Feb. 4, 2022, weeks before Putin invaded Ukraine. The two are scheduled to meet this spring to discuss a China-brokered peace plan.

China’s President Xi Jinping thinks he has a great way to swing his weight around Ukraine without actually providing the Russians with military aid, as the Americans, citing unspecified intelligence sources, suspect he’s contemplating.

Why not serve as “peacemaker,” perhaps even the prime mover behind talks? Nothing would please Xi more than to exploit negotiations on the war as a device for spreading China’s influence in a region where the Chinese are minimal players. The guise of neutrality no doubt would have critics of America’s commitment to Ukraine arguing that China could really be a dispassionate observer.

We should not, however, have to be reminded how disappointing the Chinese are as moderators or hosts in negotiations. The failure of six-party talks on North Korea, run by China from 2003 to 2007, should be enough to convince anyone that talks hosted by Beijing will go nowhere. Still, the Chinese are hinting they would make a great choice for settling differences in Ukraine — a ploy that would guarantee disappointment at best, and betrayal at worst.

The Chinese, to be sure, are not openly saying they should take charge of negotiations for a deal on Ukraine. Rather, in a 12-point proposal put out by Beijing, China offered to play a “constructive” role in bringing about the end of the war. That suggestion signaled China’s dream of appearing as the honest broker, the peacemaker, bringing about a ceasefire in a conflict that already has taken at least 100,000 lives.

China’s intervention in the quest for an end to the war would serve no purpose other than to project China as a major actor in a region in which the Chinese have had little or no influence. As moderator, China would be sure to tilt the talks in favor of Russia, despite China’s claims of neutrality. Pointedly, China’s proposal for ending the war says nothing about the need for Russian forces to withdraw from territory they’ve already overrun.

The best that may be said for Beijing’s proposal is that it would seem quite difficult for China to sell weapons to the Russians while pretending to want to negotiate a solution. Here too, however, we cannot be sure that Beijing is not using the proposal as a cover for making a deal with Moscow. China would not have to sell basic weapons to Russia to keep Vladimir Putin happy. He would gladly accept machinery for Russia’s arms industry. High-tech equipment would be useful.

Nor can we be sure the Chinese would be quite so reluctant to remain aloof from military action — if not in Ukraine, then in Taiwan and the South China Sea. China may have good reasons not to invade Taiwan. The United States and Japan would be drawn into the conflict, and for sure China’s highly profitable trade with America would dry up. Still, China’s threats against Taiwan do not augur well for China as a peacemaker anywhere, much less in the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Nor should China really expect the U.S. to appreciate Chinese diplomatic intervention in Ukraine while China menaces the nations bordering the South China Sea. Philippines President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. is now welcoming the Americans back to the Philippines after his predecessor, Rigoberto Duterte, spurned them while cozying up to China. Bongbong, as he is known among Filipinos, sees American support as crucial in fending off Chinese harassment and interference with Philippine fishing boats.

China’s record as moderator of six-party talks on Korea should provide a warning. While hosting talks on getting North Korea to give up its nuclear program, China made sure to keep supplying the North with virtually all its oil, while shipping products needed to enable the North to arm and equip its military establishment of 1.2 million troops. Nor did China persuade North Korea’s then-leader, Kim Jong Il, father of current leader Kim Jong Un, to put his nuclear program on hold. The talks ended soon after North Korea conducted its first underground nuclear test in October 2006.

By hosting six-party talks, China was able to assert its authority over both Koreas, as in the era of the 500-year Yi dynasty when Korean kings paid obeisance to Chinese rulers. While keeping North Korea on life support, China also emerged as South Korea’s biggest trading partner. South Korean leaders are reluctant to offend China, despite the South’s historic alliance with the United States. President Yoon Suk-yeol may advocate intensified joint military exercises with the Americans, but he would not want to join in defending Taiwan, the island province to whose freedom the Americans are committed against Chinese attack.

As host of talks on Ukraine, China would be in quite a different position. Looking for commercial opportunities, China could turn the talks into a device for penetrating the regions surrounding Ukraine both commercially and diplomatically. Importing oil and natural gas from Russia, China could strike great deals with the Russians, who in effect would want to bribe the Chinese into almost openly pro-Russian “neutrality.” China also would hope to expand commercial contacts throughout eastern Europe, even as Putin sought to fulfill his vision of a Russian empire matching that of the former Soviet Union.

Just as important, by encouraging — if not moderating — talks on Ukraine, China could play western European nations, banded together in NATO and led by the Americans, against the Russians. The job of an honest broker would give China an upper hand, where now they are of secondary or marginal significance.

Nor would Xi mind if the war drags on and on, bogging down the Americans, distracting them from challenging China’s claim to the South China Sea and Taiwan. China would support Russia’s aims, guaranteeing no loss of territory in a deal that would leave Ukraine substantially weaker than before the Russian invasion.

Russia, with China looking on, could consolidate gains and go on to wage another war. As an “honest broker,” China could be sure the Russians would reward the Chinese handsomely for serving their interests in a low-risk job that cost them nothing.

Donald Kirk has been a journalist for more than 60 years, focusing much of his career on conflict in Asia and the Middle East, including as a correspondent for the Washington Star and Chicago Tribune. He currently is a freelance correspondent covering North and South Korea. He is the author of several books about Asian affairs.

Tags China aggression China peace plan for Ukraine China-Taiwan tension Kim Jong Il Russia under Vladimir Putin Russian invasion of Ukraine Xi Jinping

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