Will China become a peacemaker in Ukraine?
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In August, a two-day forum was held in Jeddah, attended by leaders from 40 countries worldwide. The primary topic of discussion was how to end Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Among other things, the participants discussed Ukraine’s draft peace treaty, known as the “Zelensky’s peace formula.” 

China also participated in the discussion, and many hoped that Beijing’s involvement could influence Russia’s position. However, the results of the forum appear to be contradictory.


New peacekeeping platform

Negotiations between Russia and Ukraine continued until the spring of 2022, but since then, Moscow and Kyiv have not returned to the negotiating table. Threats from Ukraine and its allies alone have not been sufficient to compel the Kremlin to resume diplomatic efforts. The situation could be altered by pressure from countries that maintained relations with Russia following the invasion.

As a result, Ukraine is collaborating with its Western allies to establish a global platform for dialogue that will include countries widely regarded as neutral in relation to the war in Ukraine. On this platform, countries will discuss potential ways to de-escalate the conflict and possibly bring it to an end.

The first round of discussions, held in Copenhagen, did not assemble such a group of countries. China, represented by the Chinese government’s special representative Li Hui, was not present. At the time, it was a new and somewhat unclear format, particularly in a NATO country. The second round was different as it took place in Jeddah at the personal initiative of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. Given Saudi Arabia’s growing importance to China, Li Hui’s trip to Jeddah can also be viewed as an investment in Saudi-PRC relations.

The significance of China and other countries sitting at the same table with Ukraine and its allies is their potential to exert pressure on the Russian political regime from another angle. In theory, such pressure from its partners could indeed prompt Moscow to reconsider its position. China, in particular, has played a crucial role in preventing the Russian economy from collapsing under large-scale sanctions and enabling its technological and military machines to continue waging war with Ukraine. In 2022, Russia’s trade with China increased by 30% to $190 billion, and by 36.5% in the first seven months of 2023 (to $134.1 billion).

At the same time, Beijing does not openly and unconditionally support Moscow. In its rhetoric, China does not employ Russian clichés concerning Ukraine, and Chinese businesses and the banking system comply with the sanctions regime. Furthermore, China does not openly supply arms to Moscow in significant quantities.

In other words, China is attempting to remain in a neutral zone, and such a pragmatic stance is logical. The PRC is not the only country to adopt this position, nor is it the only country to benefit from the current crisis in the short term. For instance, India receives unprecedented discounts on Russian oil against the backdrop of the war.

There are several reasons for such a neutral stance. 

Firstly, it is not advantageous for China and other neutral countries to take sides in a war. As a result, they rely solely on rhetorical, diplomatic, and symbolic tools: they support Ukraine’s territorial integrity, declare adherence to the UN Charter, or even verbally condemn Russian aggression. However, such countries are not eager to translate their words into actions.

Secondly, all countries understand that Putin’s political regime has staked everything on the war with Ukraine. Apart from internal Russian crises, there is little external influence on the Kremlin’s thinking about the future and its behavior in Ukraine. In other words, even if Beijing or New Delhi were to declare their unequivocal support for Ukraine and cease cooperation with Moscow, it is unlikely that this would compel Putin to lay down his arms, return Ukraine’s territories, step down as Russian president, etc.


Geopolitical juggling

The prolonged nature of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which did not proceed according to the Kremlin’s plan, has left Russia with limited options for further development in its foreign policy. This is particularly evident in areas that rely on connections with the global community, such as economics and technology.

As a result, China has become Russia’s primary source of technology and mechanical engineering components, its main market for energy resources, and its primary supplier of financial infrastructure. Russia relies on these resources to sustain its economy.

The Russian “budget rule” is now implemented through the sale of Chinese yuan, with up to 60% of the National Wealth Fund (Russia’s sovereign wealth fund) being held in RMB, up from a previous share of 30%. According to President Putin, 80% of commercial transactions between Russia and China are conducted in rubles and yuan.

It is evident that Russia increasingly needs China as a partner. However, the question arises as to why China needs Russia. 

One reason is that partial support for Russia on foreign policy issues aligns with China’s interests.

It is important to consider in the context of Sino-Russian relationship that China at the moment finds itself in a potentially approaching confrontation with the United States. Despite some attempts at constructive engagement in recent years, relations between the two superpowers remain strained. China believes that it is in a period of confrontation with the United States and that Washington will continue to exert pressure on Beijing, regardless of its actions.

For instance, if China were to turn its back on Moscow, impose sanctions, and change its stance on the war, would this lead to improved relations with the United States? Would there be a fundamental revision of relations between Washington and Beijing following such a step? The leadership of the PRC believes that this is unlikely.

China believes that no concessions on the Russian issue will lead to a fundamental improvement in relations with the United States. At the same time, Beijing risks losing an ally in the Kremlin and gaining nothing in return. Therefore, there is currently no incentive for China to reconsider its position on the war.

China’s relationship with Europe is a priority for Beijing. The Chinese government seeks to avoid conflict with the West as a collective entity and is attempting to create a divide between the United States and the European Union. Beijing’s goal is to ensure that Europe does not move towards decoupling, but instead pursues a “de-risking” process, as outlined by the European Council. 

It is in China’s interests to ensure that Europe does not perceive it as supporting Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. The more Europe trusts Beijing as a neutral state, the smoother their de-risking process will proceed. The slower de-risking proceeds, the longer China will retain access to European markets, advanced technologies, and free financial resources.


Responsible power

The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has placed China in a difficult position. The war has resulted in both material and reputational costs for China. Material losses include rising food and energy prices, while reputational costs arise from Beijing’s attempts to appear neutral despite its improving relations with Moscow. In other words, China indirectly supports the Russian political regime, which violates international law and annexes Ukrainian territory, among other actions. This ambiguous position has drawn criticism from European countries.

Beijing tries to balance its priorities, issuing conflicting statements and taking contradictory actions. On the one hand, it recognizes the territorial integrity of Ukraine, while on the other hand, it criticizes NATO’s expansion. These contradictions are reflected in China’s position paper on the war, published on February 24, 2023, and immediately dubbed “China’s peace plan.” The arrival of Special Representative Li Hui, first to Ukraine and then to the summit in Jeddah, is part of this policy of strategic ambiguity.

China’s reputation among developing countries in Latin America, Africa, Central Asia and the Middle East as a responsible power also should not be underestimated. By remaining neutral with regards to the war in Ukraine and advocating for peace resolutions, even if they lack concrete solutions, China can expand its influence and strengthen its relationships with developing countries. This can provide China with access to new markets and resources, as well as support for its foreign policy objectives on the global stage.

China seeks to demonstrate to the developing world that it is a “responsible power” seeking constructive solutions, in contrast to other parties involved in the conflict. However, it is unlikely that China will take any concrete steps in this direction. Specificity in foreign policy does not align with Chinese diplomatic tradition, which favors vague language that does not entail responsibility.

This vagueness allows Beijing to act inconsistently. On the one hand, China attends events from which Russia is excluded. On the other hand, it conducts unprecedented naval exercises with Russia off the coast of Alaska and the Aleutian Islands.

In the foreseeable future, it is unlikely that there will be a significant shift in China’s attitude towards the war in Ukraine. This is the view of many experts who study Chinese foreign policy.

テムール・ウマロフ。ウズベキスタン出身。中国と中央アジア問題研究の専門家。カーネギー・ロシア・ユーラシア・センターのフェローでもあります。 カーネギー清華青年大使プログラムおよびカーネギー中央アジア未来プログラムの卒業生。国家経済行政ロシア大統領府アカデミー(RANEPA)で中国研究の学士号を、モスクワ国際関係大学(MGIMO、ロシア外務省付属の公立大学)で国際関係の修士号を、北京対外経済貿易大学(UIBE)で世界経済学の修士号を取得。 Temur Umarov. A native of Uzbekistan, he is an expert on China and Central Asia, and a fellow at Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center. He is an alumnus of the Carnegie-Tsinghua Young Ambassadors and the Carnegie Central Asian Futures programs. Temur holds a BA in China Studies from the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA), an MA in International Relations from Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), and an MA in World Economics from Beijing University of International Business and Economics (UIBE).