Can China help bring Russia to the negotiating table?

A burst of high-stakes diplomacy – with growing calls from Western officials for China to use its influence to pressure Russia to end its war in Ukraine – shifted the focus to Beijing’s role as a potential mediator in the crisis.

The conversation for China to take over diplomatically accelerated following a March 5 statement by Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba in which he said he had received assurances that “China is interested in stopping this war”.

“Chinese diplomacy has enough tools to make a difference and we trust that it is already involved and that its efforts will be successful,” he said.

Kuleba’s statement was echoed by other Western officialslike Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who called on China to join the effort to end the conflict, and European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who told Spanish newspaper El Mundo than Beijing could be a mediator to help find a diplomatic solution.

“We [Europeans] cannot be the mediators, that is clear…. And it can’t be [United States] That is. Who else?” Borrell said during the March 5 interview. “It has to be China, I trust that.”

As Beijing’s potential role in brokering peace has come under the spotlight, largely due to its close ties to the Kremlin, some pundits and diplomats have questioned the credentials, motivation and levers of China’s influence to mediate and push for a diplomatic solution to the war. .

“China is unlikely to play a serious mediating role in Ukraine,” Ryan Hass, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and former director for China at the National Security Council, told RFE/RL. “At most, he can seek to restore his diplomatic image by posing as a reliable channel, even if he continues to lean towards Moscow.”

The Chinese Diplomatic Dance

With doubts about Beijing’s willingness to lean on Moscow, the EU appears to be focused on pressuring China to use its influence with Russia to help negotiate a ceasefire and bring Moscow to the negotiating table, with Borrell talk about the issue on March 7 with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi.

“China has the potential to reach out to Moscow because of their relationship, and we would like China to use its influence to push for a ceasefire and to get Russia to stop the bombings and killings. brutal and unprecedented attacks on civilians in Ukraine,” a spokesperson for the European Commission said. said on March 7.

Beijing has forged warm ties with Russia over the years, which were reaffirmed during a Feb. 4 meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin in which the two leaders declared a partnership.” without limits”.

China has tried to distance itself from the Russian offensive since it began on February 24 – especially as the Kremlin changed tactics and civilian areas were targeted – while avoiding criticism from Moscow. .

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China refrained from calling the war an “invasion” and said it recognized Russia’s “legitimate security concerns”. At a press conference on March 7, Wang called China’s relationship with Moscow “rock-solid” and welcomed the prospects for the future for cooperation.

At the same time, Beijing has tried to distance itself slightly from Russia in statements, speaking of its “unwavering support for Ukraine’s sovereignty” while adding that China is ready to do “everything possible to put end the war… through diplomacy”. He also expressed “regret” about the military action and concern for civilian casualties, signaling he could play a role in trying to broker a ceasefire.

“China still wants to occupy an intermediate gray area that allows it to maintain relatively good relations with all parties,” Francesca Ghiretti, an analyst at the Berlin-based think tank MERICS, told RFE/RL.

“The statements from Beijing have been pretty consistent throughout…. For now, China has little to gain from the role of mediator.

Some Western officials hope that by adding public pressure on Beijing and challenging its global image, China will change its calculus.

During a visit to Lithuania on March 7, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken accused Beijing of hypocrisy, saying that despite its rhetoric about “maintaining international order, stability and respect for sovereignty” , he still supports Moscow and that his “actions speak much louder than his words.”

Despite the recent push on China, little progress appears to have been made.

An EU diplomat familiar with the matter told RFE/RL that there is currently nothing concrete on formal mediation involving China, despite outreach from Brussels.

“Anyone who reaches out to Putin is welcome,” the diplomat said. “So far, he has not shown or expressed to anyone any willingness to enter into negotiations [or] mediation.”

If not a mediator, then what?

China and Russia have been drawn together by a shared antagonism toward the United States and a desire to push back against what they feel is Western pressure directed against them.

While many pundits and former officials say Beijing is highly unlikely to abandon Moscow as a partner, they recognize that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the human and political crisis it has caused do not suit China and that Beijing is recalibrating its position.

Ukrainian soldiers carry babies as they help a fleeing family find a vehicle after crossing the Irpin River on the outskirts of Kiev on March 5.

Ukrainian soldiers carry babies as they help a fleeing family find a vehicle after crossing the Irpin River on the outskirts of Kiev on March 5.

“China may have believed that this conflict was in its interest because it had the potential to distract the United States and sow transatlantic division,” Rhodium Group’s Noah Barkin told RFE/RL. “Instead, it brought the EU and [United States] closer and sparked a foreign policy overhaul in Europe that could boomerang out of Beijing.

Citing a Western intelligence report, the New York Times reported that Chinese officials told their Russian counterparts in early February not to invade Ukraine before the end of the Winter Olympics in Beijing, although it is not clear whether Putin directly informed Xi of any war plans specific for Ukraine.

Chinese authorities have dismissed the report as “pure fake news”, but it highlights the reputational and strategic risks Beijing faces as it seeks to save face with its public attachment to Russia and attempts to protect from the return of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and its rise. number of civilian casualties.

“Either Beijing misjudged Putin and the effect his attack on Ukraine would have on Western resolve, or it judged that the long-term benefits of this conflict would outweigh the short-term risks,” he said. Barkins. “What seems clear is that China will soon have to start recalibrating its rhetoric or risk losing Europe. Ukraine could well be a tipping point for EU-China relations.

A sign outside the Canadian Embassy showing the flag of Ukraine reads "We stand in solidarity with Ukraine" in Beijing on March 3.  The panel was then defaced with graffiti decrying NATO.

A sign outside the Canadian Embassy showing the flag of Ukraine reads “We stand in solidarity with Ukraine” in Beijing on March 3. The panel was then defaced with graffiti decrying NATO.

That leaves Beijing with a difficult balancing act.

Chinese policymakers are wary of US pressure in the Indo-Pacific region that could hamper its continued global ascent and they still see Russia as a necessary partner in any future confrontation. But the fallout from the invasion of Moscow is already proving to be a strategic headache for China.

According to Hass, who oversaw China policy on the National Security Council under US President Barack Obama, “Beijing seems determined to stay closely with Moscow,” but there are still roles outside of being a broker. of peace that China might be willing to play to help stabilize the situation in Ukraine.

“The United States and others would be best served by engaging Beijing on low-key issues where China could make a constructive contribution,” Hass said. “[Such as] humanitarian aid to Ukraine, avoiding backfill global sanctions against Russia, and not to obstruct global efforts at the UN to ensure future accountability of [Moscow].”

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