In a phone call to Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Xi Jinping said on April 26 that Beijing planned to send an envoy to Ukraine to discuss a possible “political settlement” to the Russo-Ukrainian conflict.
Subsequently, senior Chinese diplomat Li Hui was tasked to act as China’s “special representative” to facilitate a bilateral cease-fire since the year-long bloody battle erupted in February 2022.
For Moscow, Li would be “the best possible choice” to broker talks with Ukraine, Alexey Maslov, director of the Institute of Asian and African Studies at Moscow State University, opined.
“Moscow will not be worried because he really understands Russian politics,” Maslov stated, adding that he has known Li personally for a decade.
Li has read books from Russian writers like Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, Maslov added, saying: “He really understands the Russian soul, he understands the Russian psychology, the Russian mentality.”
Much doubts about Beijing’s true motivations
Although some observers have been scratching their heads as to what Beijing’s true motivations for mediating between Russia and Ukraine are, other pundits have asserted that China hopes to broker peace to bolster its own presence in Eastern Europe.
Consequently, some European officials have decried China for attempting to gain a foothold in European Union (EU) decision-making processes, questioning Beijing’s neutrality in the mediation process, given that China has hitherto boasted of its “no-limits” partnership with Russia.
Just before February 2022, Xi met Russian President Putin in a face-to-face meeting and lauded their two countries’ bilateral ties as having “no limits”. Nonetheless, in April this year, Xi only had a phone call with Zelensky, without explicitly blasting Russian actions in Ukraine and imposing sanctions on Russia.
For example, political science professor Kimberly Marten of Barnard College at Columbia University in New York questioned China’s ability to act as a mediator.
“I have a hard time believing that China can act as a peacemaker,” she indicated, elaborating that Beijing had been “too close to Russia”.
On another note, Marten said the Xi-Zelensky call was “kind of a slap at Russia because Russia has been very keen to portray China as its ally”, asserting that the recent direct China-Ukraine contact “indicates China is taking at least a step away from Russia”.
Additionally, analysts doubt China’s ability to propose truce conditions that would be satisfactory for both Moscow and Kyiv, particularly on territorial matters. Take the issue of Crimea for instance. Designating Crimea to Russia and acknowledging Crimea’s territorial independence from Ukraine would violate the CCP’s “one-China” policy towards the Taiwan issue and make Beijing appear hypocritical. Rather, to be consistent, the CCP would have to consider Crimea as part of “one Ukraine”, as The Diplomat foreign affairs outlet posited.
A lack of trust for China’s intentions
Notably, China is the only major world power that has friendly ties with Moscow, apart from being the largest buyer of Russian oil and gas after America and its allies ceased most purchases, a decision that caused global energy prices to soar.
Notwithstanding its own military assertiveness in the South China Sea and domestic clampdown on religious and ethnic minorities in the mainland and in Hong Kong, Beijing regards Moscow as a strategic partner in countering American domination of global affairs.
Hence, China has refrained from openly slamming Russian actions in Ukraine, leveraging its role as one of five permanent United Nations Security Council (UNSC) members to stall diplomatic and economic attacks on Russia, arousing the ire of many Western nations and allies. China has increased purchases of Russian oil and gas for its economy, thus compensating Russia for lost revenue owing to Western sanctions.
Also, Beijing’s 12-point document, titled “China’s Position on the Political Settlement of the Ukraine Crisis”, and published in February this year, can be regarded with a pinch of salt. The document claimed that China respects the sovereignty of all countries, backs an end to tensions, and supports reinstating peace talks between Russia and Ukraine.
Still, Beijing’s denunciations of attaining regional security by “strengthening or expanding military blocs” contradicts Chinese belligerence towards the self-ruled island of Taiwan.
Furthermore, according to a Politico report, intelligence agencies verified that Beijing had been providing Moscow with shipments of lethal arms, such as the 1,000 Chinese assault rifles that were transported directly to Russia, as well as body armor and drones shipped indirectly via Türkiye and the United Arab Emirates.
In light of Beijing’s track record of abetting Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, it would be unlikely that the US and its allies, as well as Ukraine itself, would trust China as an entirely reliable peace-broker.
On the other hand, adopting a more optimistic attitude towards the possible outcome of Chinese-brokered peace talks has been King’s College London lecturer Zeno Leoni’s stance. Leoni alluded to the Chinese diplomat’s task to handle the peace talks and said: “(Li) will understand where mediation is possible and where not between Russia and Ukraine.”
Is China playing both Russia and Ukraine?
Admittedly, having Russia and Ukraine conclude an armistice would benefit China in terms of reaping economic benefits from reconstructing a post-war Ukraine. Prior to the outbreak of the invasion, China was Ukraine’s largest trading partner, with the Zelensky’s government publicly maintaining amicable relations with Beijing.
“Before the full-scale Russian invasion, China was Ukraine’s number one trading partner. I believe that our conversation today will give a powerful impetus to the return, preservation and development of this dynamic at all levels,” an official Ukrainian transcript of the Xi-Zelensky call read.
In the past, Beijing had previously refrained from getting too embroiled in conflicts between other countries. Nonetheless, since February 2022, the CCP seemingly has been trying to emerge as a worldwide diplomatic force, capitalizing on its success at facilitating peace talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia as of March 10 this year.
Having said that, Xi has stated that he is trying to restore China to what the CCP alleges to be its “rightful status” as a political and economic global leader to construct a world order supporting Beijing’s interests.
Should Russia get defeated ultimately without peace talks, China would also lose the Putin’s government as a key pillar of support, forgo the lucrative economic opportunity to rebuild Ukraine as well as reap returns from its pre-conflict investment in the country.
Therefore, any peace-brokering attempt would increase China’s chances of preserving Putin’s hold on power and Putin’s regime, reaping massive economic opportunities in Ukraine and propelling Beijing’s diplomatic status to greater heights. Should the fighting cease on Chinese-brokered conditions, China can ultimately stand to benefit most from the mediated resolution and have a greater say in shaping a post-conflict regional and global order.
Regardless of the outcome of mediation talks, it is highly probable that China would have less to lose than if it were to sideline the invasion completely.
China wants global dominance
Associate Professor Li Mingjiang, provost’s chair in international relations at the Nanyang Technological University’s (NTU) S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), remarked in an interview with Channel News Asia (CNA)’s Asia Tonight on March 22 that China would not assume responsibility if peace talks were to be fail.
“Even if it eventually fails, it won’t be China’s fault. It will be the participants themselves,” the professor stated. “So for China, it’s a safe bet. You cover peace, you make some general proposal for political settlement and you can gain some moral high ground.”
Raffaello Pantucci, senior fellow at the RSIS, echoed Professor Li’s views, pointing out that China is trying to craft a narrative that it is suggesting a peace plan, as opposed to how some countries are sending arms to back Ukraine outright, provoking Russia’s retaliation.
“I do think that China is probably thinking, we’ll advance some ideas of peace – whether this ultimately resolves the conflict entirely, or at least just demonstrates that,” Pantucci told CNA938’s Asia First.
“In other words, it’s possible that China is not expecting to resolve this problem.”
Indeed, the CCP regime has sought global dominance in political, economic, ideological and military arenas, by participating in blocs such as the Sino-Russian-Saudi-Iranian alliance and conducting oil transactions in Chinese yuan to reduce dependence on the greenback. Perhaps the greatest beneficiary of any Russo-Ukrainian peace talks would eventually be no other than Beijing.
Photo credit: Pixabay/ ProsaClouds. Russian President Vladimir Putin.