China’s top leader Xi Jinping has cast himself as a world statesman, helping Saudi Arabia and Iran broker a deal to restore diplomatic relations while extolling the virtues of “Solutions and Chinese wisdom” to solve the world’s biggest security challenges.
Now Mr. Xi is putting himself at the center of Russia’s war with Ukraine, potentially positioning himself as a mediator to end the protracted fighting.
The Chinese leader is expected to meet in person next week with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, and a call with President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine could follow. China has already proposed a peace deal, though it doesn’t address important details such as whether Russian troops will withdraw. Announcing Xi’s visit to Russia, a Chinese official said on Friday that it was “for the sake of peace.”
At stake for Beijing is its push for legitimacy as the leader of an alternative world order to the one dominated by the United States, a role it has sought with increasing urgency to resist what Mr. Xi described as Washington’s “contain, encircle and suppress China”.
Both Russia and Ukraine see China as a potentially transformative power, with enough leverage to break the deadlock. But both Moscow and kyiv are also well aware that China could fundamentally alter the dynamics on the battlefield by playing a more direct role in replenishing Moscow’s badly depleted arsenal.
“China’s international influence as a great power is necessary for peace now more than ever,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Beijing Renmin University, reflecting Beijing’s own sense of its growing global importance after the agreement between Tehran and Riyadh. .
Seizing that momentum and entering the fray of war could help Xi achieve one of his most pressing needs: repairing Beijing’s relationship with Europe. With China’s economy struggling, he wants to prevent the region from aligning itself too closely with the United States on trade and investment restrictions targeting China.
To do that, analysts say Xi will likely need to demonstrate a strong enough effort to end Russia’s war, in a move to exploit divisions within the European Union over the US drive to counter China. If he can, he could help satisfy powers that are eager to increase economic engagement with Beijing, including Germany and France.
“Xi Jinping’s target is not Russia or Ukraine, but Western Europe,” said Danny Russel, vice president of the Asia Society Policy Institute and former US assistant secretary of state. “Ultimately, what he’s trying to do is set it up so that, in the eyes of the Germans and the French, I give it a chance.”
For Moscow, the bar for peace talks is high. Russia has rejected Western demands to withdraw troops as a condition of the talks. Putin, meeting Xi, is likely to prioritize asking for help replenishing stocks of military-grade components and increasing exports to China to fatten the Kremlin’s war chest. He will also give Russia a chance to emphasize that it has not been isolated by the global community.
For Ukraine, China has long represented a potential lifeline, with enough influence over Russia to influence the war. Zelensky, with Washington’s support, has been trying to hold talks with Xi for months. He even sent his wife, Olena Zelenska, to deliver a letter to the Chinese delegation requesting a meeting at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
China’s role is complicated. Beijing has tried to present itself as a neutral bystander in the war, but has continued to provide diplomatic and economic support to Russia.
Washington warned last month that China was preparing to provide Russia with lethal weapons and threatened sanctions if it complied. Beijing denied the accusation and accused the United States of leading the two countries towards “conflict and confrontation.”
Analysts say China is unlikely to risk supplying Moscow with arms and ammunition unless Russian forces face collapse. Beijing is prepared to back Putin, but only enough to help him stay in power and preserve a united front against the West.
“Beijing is conflict agnostic,” said Aleksandr Gabuev, an expert on Russia’s relations with Asia at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a think tank. “What he wants is to avoid a catastrophic Russian defeat, which could threaten Putin.”
Skepticism abounds in the West about Xi’s intentions in the war, given their conflicting goals and interests.
The position paper China released in February outlining a political solution to the war was widely criticized by Western leaders for lacking concrete plans and avoiding lawsuits that could damage Beijing’s ties with Moscow. Beijing has never condemned the invasion of Russia and parrots the Kremlin’s claim that the war was sparked by the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The deep ties between the two nuclear-armed powers are said to be bolstered by a personal affinity between Xi and Putin, who declared a “limitless” partnership shortly before Ukraine was invaded. Since then, Russia has become increasingly dependent on China.
“There are no ties that are more important for Russia,” Gabuev said.
Announcing Mr. Xi’s three-day visit starting March 20, Russia said the sides would discuss “issues of further development of the comprehensive partnership” between the two countries, as well as “deepening Russian-Chinese cooperation in the international arena”. .” In Kremlin practice, a state visit means the highest form of bilateral talks, usually reserved for the closest allies.
Speaking of the visit on Friday, Wang Wenbin, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, said “maintaining world peace and promoting common development are the purposes of China’s foreign policy,” adding that on the Ukraine issue , China has always been on the side of peace, dialogue and historical correction.”
Neither China nor Ukraine have announced a call between its two leaders, whose protocol will be more difficult to navigate with Russia.
It remains to be seen whether Mr. Xi will raise the idea of peace negotiations during his visit and build on the momentum of the Saudi-Iran deal.
That agreement was reached under very different conditions. Both sides had already held extensive talks and expressed their willingness to repair ties. Ukraine and Russia, on the other hand, remain locked in a bloody war in which neither side seems willing to negotiate an end.
“While China’s role in the Iran-Saudi deal is compelling and shows that China is playing a bigger role on the international stage, its lessons don’t apply well to the Russia-Ukraine situation,” said Dennis Wilder. , former head of China Analysis at the CIA
China maintains that the agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran reflects its vision of a new style of global governance that emphasizes dialogue and communication over deterrence and military intervention. Beijing was able to serve as a credible mediator because it cultivated close ties with both Tehran and Riyadh and never exploited their differences, Chinese analysts say.
Any China-led negotiations on Ukraine could hinge on how kyiv views Beijing. Before the war, China and Ukraine had a flourishing relationship backed by growing commodity trade and arms sales.
Although Ukraine has been careful to criticize China’s tacit support for Russia’s invasion, Beijing’s inaction on the crisis for more than a year and its amplification of Kremlin propaganda on NATO aggression has undermined its credibility.
In some ways, the war has served Chinese interests. The conflict has given Beijing access to discounted oil from a heavily sanctioned Russia. It has also created a greater opportunity for Xi to drive a wedge between the United States and a war-weary Europe unwilling to experience another winter of high energy prices.
More importantly, the war has prevented the United States from devoting more attention and resources to Asia, where China presents a far greater long-term challenge to the Western-led world order than Russia.
“If I were sitting in Beijing, I would think this is a good thing,” said Theresa Fallon, director of the Center for Russian, European and Asian Studies in Brussels. “The United States can run out of ammunition and artillery shells, and its attention is spread across the board instead of laser-focused on its pace challenger, which is China.”
Mr. Xi is on a “national rejuvenation” mission, underscoring what he perceives as the United States standing in his way. Putin’s complaints about the NATO invasion ring true for Xi as the United States strengthens security ties in the region with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia.
And part of Beijing’s strategy to counter that pressure is to take on a bigger role in global stability to challenge US influence.
“Compared to China’s previous diplomatic actions, it is a very proactive step forward,” said Wu Xinbo, dean of international studies at Fudan University in Shanghai. “China will play an increasingly active role on the international stage, especially in resolving regional conflicts.”
keith bradsher olivia wangand Ivan Nechepurenko contributed reporting.