Explainer: Can China broker peace between Russia and Ukraine?
Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to soon visit Russia’s Vladimir Putin and, according to media, hold a virtual meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy weeks after China proposed a 12-point plan for peace in Ukraine.
China’s foreign ministry has said it is in communication with both sides and, while it has not confirmed Xi’s plan for talks with either Putin or Zelenskiy, there is speculation that China may try to get the rivals to the negotiating table.
Following are some of the issues China and others are likely to be taking into account as it considers prospects for peace in Ukraine.
WHY WOULD CHINA TRY TO MEDIATE?
China has traditionally adhered to a principle of not interfering in other countries’ conflicts, especially the more distant ones.
But a peace deal struck in Beijing last week between Saudi Arabia and Iran highlights a Chinese aim to project itself as a responsible great power under Xi’s stewardship, analysts say.
“Xi would want to be seen on the global stage as a statesman whose influence at least equals that of the U.S. leader,” said Wang Jiangyu, a law professor at City University of Hong Kong.
China is also eager to deflect criticism that when it comes to Ukraine, it has sided with the aggressor, Russia, which calls its invasion in February last year a “special military operation”.
Attempting to broker peace is a low-cost venture that can yield high returns for China, even if a quick breakthrough is highly unlikely, analysts say.
China urged both sides to agree to a gradual de-escalation leading to a comprehensive ceasefire in its 12-point paper on the “political resolution of the Ukraine crisis”.
While the plan called for the protection of civilians and that the sovereignty of all countries be respected, China has refrained from condemning Russia for its invasion.
The plan got lukewarm welcomes in both Russia and Ukraine while the United States and NATO were sceptical.
Ukraine, which says it will only consider peace settlements after Russian troops leave Ukrainian territory, took issue with the plan for not stating that Russia should withdraw behind borders in place since the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but later said it was open to “parts of the plan”.
Russia said it would take a “nuanced study” of the plan but did not see any sign for a peaceful resolution for now.
The U.S. said China presented itself publicly as neutral and seeking peace while at the same time reflected Russia’s “false narrative” about the war, provided it with non-lethal assistance and was considering lethal assistance. China denies that.
NATO said China did not have much credibility as a mediator on Ukraine.
Analysts say it will be hard for China to get Russia and Ukraine to the negotiating table, unlike Saudi Arabia and Iran, which presented an easier diplomatic win.
“Saudi Arabia and Iran actually want to talk and improve relations, while Russia and Ukraine don’t, at least for now,” said Yun Sun, director of the China Program at the Washington-based Stimson Center.
However, Xi could act as a backchannel, Yun said, which could start momentum towards talks that for now seem unlikely with both sides hardening their stances in the grinding war.
A fruitless attempt by NATO member Turkey to host dialogue in Istanbul in the weeks after the war began last year underscored the difficulty.
Some analysts say China is in a better position than Turkey to mediate because it has more leverage over Russia.
China is Russia’s most important ally and has been buying Russian oil and provided a market for Russian goods shunned by Western countries.
China also has some leverage over Ukraine, which would not want to torpedo the chances of Chinese support for its reconstruction, said Samuel Ramani, a Russia expert at Oxford University.
China expanded trade with Ukraine after Russia invaded Crimea in 2014 and did not recognise the annexed territory as Russian, he said.
“Most importantly, Zelenskiy does not want to provoke China so much that they start arming Russia,” Ramani said.
China’s close ties with Russia mean its role will be viewed with deep scepticism. Days before Russia invaded Ukraine, China and Russia announced a “no-limits” partnership.
While China has called for peace since the beginning of the war, it has largely reflected the Russian position that NATO threatened Russia with its eastward expansion while Ukraine’s Western allies fanned the flames of war by supplying it with tanks and missiles.
Andrew Small, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, said China wants to be seen as doing its part for peace but is not prepared to press Putin to stop the war and sacrifice its relations with Russia.
“Beijing hasn’t thrown its weight around nor sought to coerce Russia into doing anything,” he said.