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Could China Help End The War in Ukraine?


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How might China help end the war in Ukraine? Most in the United States and Europe assume there’s not much China could or would do. Aware that Beijing has often had Vladimir Putin’s back during the conflict — providing diplomatic succor for Moscow and continuing to buy Russian oil and gas, among other transgressions — many Western critics assume that China’s interests regarding the war in Ukraine are entirely at cross-purposes with our own.

In fact, Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu declared this past week, in a meeting with Putin, that China-Russia relations have entered a “new era” and that their partnership transcends alliances forged during the Cold War. As such, when China released its proposed principles for a Ukraine-Russia peace process in late February, President Biden and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg were immediately dismissive. When French President Emmanuel Macron visited Beijing recently to discuss the war, many wondered how he could be so naïve as to think any such trip could serve a useful purpose — some called the voyage a “fool’s errand.” One frequent Western concern is that, by calling for a near-term ceasefire in the fighting, China could effectively help Russia lock in the territorial gains it has made to date.  

To be sure, Beijing is watching out for its own interests in the Ukraine war — and certainly cannot play the role of honest broker in its eventual resolution. It has categorically skewed toward Moscow over the course of its assault on Ukraine, blunting Western efforts to isolate Moscow through continued economic and diplomatic engagement, and lending support to the Russian narrative that NATO encirclement and “Western hegemony” are ultimately at fault for the conflict. But Beijing’s problematic embrace of Moscow has simply reinforced the reality that China remains Russia’s most consequential ally and trade partner — and thus a critical player in efforts to reduce the risks of escalation and to bring the war to an end. President Zelensky appears to appreciate as much; he has invited Xi Jinping to Kyiv and otherwise chosen not to shut the door on a potential Chinese role in a future peace process.   

This raises the question: What kind of end to the Ukraine war could China get behind? Given their partnership, there is no way that China would wish to see a decisive defeat of Russia in this war. A line in the China-Russia joint statement released last month during Xi’s visit to Moscow spells out clearly that “China needs a strong and successful Russia.” Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there have been calls to strip Moscow of its seat at the United Nations Security Council and in other international bodies, and to seize Russia’s assets in foreign banks as a means of financing the rebuilding of Ukraine. 

The International Criminal Court (ICC) has issued an arrest warrant for Putin for committing war crimes in Ukraine. China is unlikely to endorse such penalties for Russia; it certainly would not wish to see Russia brought to its knees strategically, or broken up into constituent republics, as some have advocated. Nor would it accept measures that could undermine Putin’s position at home given Xi’s investment in a personal relationship with the Russian dictator and fears of similar foreign machinations against his own rule.   

However, while Beijing does not want to see an outright Russian defeat, neither has it embraced the Russian annexation of Ukrainian territory, the escalation of the conflict, or the risk that the war could further damage the world economy by dragging on indefinitely. Beijing’s peace paper on Ukraine has been criticized for failing to call for the withdrawal of all Russian troops and the restoration of Ukraine’s borders. But the paper does not rule out such steps, either, and China’s insistence that the sovereignty and territorial integrity of all states should be upheld leaves open the possibility for Beijing to support the complete restoration of Ukraine’s territory — which is the central demand in Zelensky’s own 10-point peace plan

Some have posited that China wants to see a prolonged conflict in Ukraine to drain time, attention and resources from Western countries, and the United States in particular, as Washington seeks to intensify its competitive position vis-à-vis the People’s Republic of China.  While this possibility cannot be dismissed, and indeed may reflect certain attitudes of some Chinese strategic and military planners, it is unlikely that it carries the day in most of Beijing. Most Chinese leaders prioritize a strong global economy and would welcome a ceasefire or peace that would allow their Russian strategic partner to recover its strength and international influence. 

Thus, while Beijing is unlikely to ever publicly censure Putin and or to act as an honest broker or neutral interlocutor, it might be modestly helpful in other ways. First, it will likely continue to avoid providing major military support to Russia. Chinese leaders have publicly reiterated in recent days that they will not sell weapons to either side of the conflict, although Chinese drones, jet parts and electronic goods that are used by the Russian military will likely continue to flow into Russia, whether directly from Chinese companies or third-party countries. 

Second, Beijing will continue to strongly discourage Putin from horizontal escalation (taking the war to other places) or vertical escalation (threatening nuclear use). Third, while it may never support the idea of Ukraine joining NATO, it might be persuaded to support another security structure or organization that could help protect Ukraine from a future Russian attack as part of a future peace plan, in addition to the full restoration of Ukraine’s borders.  

Fourth, as Beijing has indicated, China may be willing to commit resources to the recovery and rebuilding of Ukraine once the war is over. Most of all, behind closed doors, and far from Western ears, Xi might, as time goes by, increasingly be willing to tell Putin that it really is time to end this foolish conflict, even if that requires Moscow to scale back its core goals. Ironically, Biden’s the one making America great againAmerica’s long-term fiscal sustainability challenge

None of this is guaranteed to happen, of course, and in any case, a meaningful Ukraine-Russia peace process remains a long way off. But the overlap of China’s interests with our own should not be dismissed and should serve as a baseline for working with Beijing to help end this war. 

Source: The Hill

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